Florian Boesch, Jake Arditti, Anna Prohaska, Giulia Semenzato; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Christopher Moulds; dir. Claus Guth (Vienna, 2021)
Unitel DVD: 805508; Blu-ray: 805604 158 mins
In April 2021, a revival of Claus Guth’s 2018 staging of Handel’s oratorio Saul, with mostly the original cast, opened to a pandemic-emptied Theater an der Wien. Among the few witnesses was video director Tiziano Mancini, who delivers a bold rendition of Guth’s vision of Saul.
Saul, King of Israel (bass-baritone Florian Boesch) descends into mad jealousy of the Goliath-slaying David (countertenor Jake Arditti), after giving David his younger daughter in marriage. Saul tries, and fails, to kill David or have him killed. Mancini’s energetic, evocative camera work makes the black walls, abattoir-like interiors, and revolving stage of Guth’s minimalist set a character in the action. During the overture, Mancini inserts an eloquent silent film of a haggard Boesch foreseeing bloody visions of himself. During the action, Mancini’s staccato cuts and claustrophobic close-ups, especially of chorus members – whose choreography pays homage to Peter Sellars’s 1996 Theodora – implicate the viewer in Saul’s breakdown.
So, too, does the blistering intensity of Boesch’s Saul. Whether lashing out in fortissimo melismas or whispering in pure-tone pianissimo, Boesch probes totalising extremes. Other principals match Boesch’s top quality, particularly Arditti, whose climaxes command a lithe, powerful core, but whose central aria, ‘Oh Lord, whose mercies numberless’, is arrestingly still.
Guth sometimes works against both the libretto and the music. Why have Saul’s elder daughter Merab, who rejects David for his low rank, then desire him? Why do David and his beloved fiancée join with Jonathan and Merab in four-way sex? At such points Guth, Saul-like, forsakes common sense. Mancini’s efforts, by contrast, help restore Saul’s dramatic coherence.