Handel composed Saul in 1738; first performed at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket in 1739, it is generally taken to be the first of the composer’s great mature oratorios. It marks a transition in Handel’s output, a shift from the firm reliance upon the da capo arias of the Italian opera tradition toward a more fluidly dramatic composition, shorter, sophisticated airs, all the more potent for their brevity, given to the principals in the midst of orchestral interludes and the grand choruses that became a hallmark of the English oratorio tradition. There is a great deal of musical treasure to be mined from Saul, as this superlative performance by ensemble The Sixteen demonstrated in spades.
One of the strengths of Saul is surely its dramatically effective libretto. Written by Charles Jennens, the Englishman who also served as librettist of Messiah, it deftly selects from amongst some twenty different versions of the story in English to piece together a seamless dramatic narrative. Taken from the biblical Book of Samuel, it traces the story of the hero David from the aftermath of his slaying of Goliath to his ascension as King of Israel. The work opens with a grand choral scene in which David’s victory over Goliath and the Philistines is celebrated. In the midst of this revelry, envy takes root in Saul, Israel’s king. Saul’s son Jonathan admires David’s virtue and befriends him, creating conflict between his loyalty to his friend and his deeply-rooted filial piety. Saul repeatedly attempts to have David dispatched, finally abandoning God to seek aid from the Witch of Endor and dying with his son in battle. Jennens’s incisive libretto succeeds in evoking not only the great drama at the heart of the biblical narrative, but a rich tapestry of characters, conflict, and choral glory that was aptly suited to Handel’s full musical virtuosity as a mature composer.
Harry Christophers is no newcomer to the English baroque tradition, and his mastery of the form shone through the sophisticated and sensitive reading he drew from the orchestra of The Sixteen. One of the attractions of Saul is the variegated instrumental colouring granted by Handel’s inclusion of trombones, organ, carillon, and of course, David’s harp. The Sixteen richly painted the full spectrum of orchestral textures given to the work, from the fleet buoyancy of the opening overture to the grandiloquent glory of the praise lavished on David by the chorus with its jubilant cry of ‘Hallelujah’. The period instruments evoked the subtleties of the score with warmth and precision, the vibrato in the strings always carefully controlled, the brass restrained but glorious. Further shading was provided by Alastair Ross on the organ, the elegant harp playing of Frances Kelly, well evoking the tenderness of David’s aria of reconciliation to Saul, and the sprightly addition of the carillon under Julian Perkins. Though I admittedly find it hard to resist keeping an eye out for Papageno whenever I hear the tolling of the glockenspiel’s bells, the merry tinkering of Mr. Perkins’s playing did much to convey the unthinking levity of the Israelites in lauding David over Saul.
In line with Jennens’s libretto, Mr. Christophers guided the score with sweep, moving seamlessly from orchestral interlude to mournful air to rowdy chorus. Though keeping up momentum, he frequently paused to draw exquisite feeling from quieter passages, most notably in the moments of tenderness between David and Michal in Act II. Though the pacing was typically well-judged, parts of the second and third acts felt slightly prolonged; it was a steady but by no means hasty account. Yet with so superlative an ensemble of chorus and principals assembled, this was not necessarily a bad thing. The Sixteen sang with remarkable balance, both female and male parts well projected, delineated brightly with clarity and consistently superb diction. The opening ‘Hallelujah’ celebrating David’s victory was impeccably delivered, the vocal texturing of male and female singers adding up to a vibrant whole. Smaller parts of the oratorio were taken by members of the chorus; this included Mark Dobell as the High Priest, Stuart Young as the Ghost of Samuel, Ben Davies as Doeg, Eamonn Dougan as Abner, and Tom Raskin as the Amalekite, all of whom were even more impressive given how well they held their own in the midst of the evening’s principals. (The Sixteen’s Jeremy Budd was also to have sung the Witch of Endor; however, he was replaced by a very good Andrew Mackenzie Wicks.) The Sixteen are a truly exceptional chorus, and irrespective of the high calibre of the principals, they did much to make the performance so successful as it was.
Nevertheless, the evening was blessed with a group of excellent soloists. They brought a fantastic sense of drama to the performance, lending both their gestures and their singing enough expression to inject a better sense of natural vivacity than that found in many staged Handel productions. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly did her best to look the part of the heroic David, sporting trousers for the occasion. Yet it was the natural ease of her portrayal that made it so excellent, the warm timbre of her voice borne aloft in seamless trills and phrasing. Ms. Connolly’s remarkable vocal technique was heard to best effect in the air ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’; accompanied by the gentle thrumming of the harp, it made for perhaps the most affectingly beautiful moment of the evening. At the other end of the spectrum, she summoned impassioned rage in the third act’s ‘Impious wretch, of race accurst’, lending stature to David’s grief over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.
Christopher Purves made a compelling Saul, transmitting venomous jealousy in every glance and line. As envy took hold in ‘With rage I shall burst his praises to hear!’, he clutched his score with such furious posturing that one feared he was going to throw it. (In the libretto, Saul does indeed seem to have a troubling penchant for throwing javelins at people rather frequently; why not a score?) Yet it was Mr. Purves’s facility throughout his lower register that impressed most, his capacity to transition throughout the full range of tessitura with grace as well as power. If Robert Murray could not quite equal his level of characterisation or poise as Saul’s son Jonathan, he nevertheless acquitted himself suitably enough. If ‘Birth and Fortune I despise’ was reasonably nondescript, Mr. Murray excelled in his railing against his father later in the evening, ‘No, cruel father, no!’ voiced with agility and superb diction.
This was the first time I have heard Joelle Harvey, and I must confess to hoping it not the last. Singing the role of Saul’s daughter Micah, her soprano was marked with gloriously bright colouring, her restraint over vibrato lending refinement and elegance to her assumption. Her coloratura was impressively smooth in ‘O godlike youth, by all confess’d’, a crystalline buoyancy lending a particular radiance to the passage. As Micah’s arrogant sister Merab, Elizabeth Atherton began a bit more tentatively. Yet at her best her coloratura soared, her dexterous high notes even more impressive – if perhaps less beautifully phrased – than Ms. Harvey’s. She brought genuine hauteur to ‘What abject thought a prince can have’, her snarling demeanor granting her a truly theatrical presence on stage.
Coupled with the immaculate coordination and vocal grandeur brought by the chorus of The Sixteen, the performance made for a Saul as gripping as anyone could hope to hear. Despite any quibbling over the occasional longueur or orchestral slip, it was a superlative evening, the oratorio’s final exuberant chorus met by an ovation that was well deserved indeed.
John E. de Wald
Photograph ©: Arielle Doneson (Joelle Harvey)