Composer: George Frideric Handel
Conductor: Laurence Cummings
Director: Barrie Kosky
Reviewer: Karen Bussell
Barrie Kosky makes a distinguished debut at Glyndebourne with Handel’s Saul being the last, but by no means least, tour offering.
Putting Biblical narrative under scorching inspection through focus on the relationships between David, Jonathan and Saul, and the all-consuming jealousy and descent into madness of the King of Israel, it’s bloody, baroque and bleakly black.
Kosky’s extravagant minimalism is brought to life by designer Katrin Lea Tag as the breathtakingly stunning opening set is stripped away to nothing but black grit and grey/black backdrop creating an apposite apocalyptic dream world.
Costuming is a fairytale mix of bouffant wigs, 18thCentury and modern day dress, pastel shades and unrelieved black.
Kosky takes Handel’s dramatic oratorio and inserts crazy choreography, eroticism, incest, partying and much posturing and stomping about the stage to fill the gaps. Otto Pichler’s choreography is magnificently mad, but the relentless trudging through the black stuff wears a bit thin.
Counter tenor Christopher Ainslie is an interesting, laid-back David. Beautifully pitched, mysterious and sexually fluid, the giant slayer weaves his spell onadmiring men and women alike, his voice – rather than his harp – calming the belligerent Saul and tugging at the heartstrings with brave Jonathan.
Sopranos Sarah Tynan and Anna Devin as sisters Merab and Michal both dispatch soaring arias with aplomb and wonderful control: Tynan harsh where required and Devin playful and lovelorn by turns.
Tenor David Webb is a brooding jester-like creation, omnipresent to fill the narrative and sing myriad parts while Colin Judson as the Witch of Endor rises through the swirling sands to suckle Saul with ghastly pendulous breasts.
Stuart Jackson is a superb Jonathan (heard on one of his two nights in rôle) spellbound by the self-effacing newcomer and, in Kosky’s world at least, seduced in more ways than one. His anguish is particularly palpable in But sooner Jordan’s stream, I swear and he blends beautifully in duos with Ainslie and Henry Waddington as Saul. It is just a shame that the severed head lovingly cradled by David on the battlefield is clearly that of the usual Jonathan instead.
With so many exceedingly high notes and arias, Waddington’s rich bass-baritone provides tremendous counterpoint. He adeptly executes the difficult portrayal of increasing madness but unfortunately costuming makes him seem more drag queen than ferocious king.
As ever, the Glyndebourne Touring Orchestra excels. Under the precise baton of Richard Milone, the more unusual theorbo continuo and carillon provide melancholy and interest while Laurence Cummings’ solo organ – the part played by the composer himself reportedly often rising out of the orchestra pit on a dais to do so – is of note.
But no matter how enthralling the production, the ensemble moments are when the piece really takes flight – there’s no getting away from the fact this is an oratorio and Jeremy Bines’ Chorus is superb – more than a match for the precise fugues, mighty anthems and thrilling Dead March. Wonderful.
Reviewed on 27 November 2015 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith