Handel’s Saul staged at Glyndebourne in 2015

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Opus Arte
ALBUM TITLE: Handel
WORKS: Saul
PERFORMER: Christopher Purves, Iestyn Davies, Lucy Crowe, Sophie Bevan, Paul Appleby, Benjamin Hulett, John Graham-Hall; Glyndebourne Chorus; OAE/Ivor Bolton; dir. Barrie Kosky (Glyndebourne, 2015)
CATALOGUE NO: DVD: OA 1216 D; Blu-ray: OA BD7205 D  

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Handel pretty much threw the kitchen sink at his 1739 oratorio Saul – an organ was built specially, military kettle drums hired in from the Tower of London, and a trio of trombones sourced to lend archaic colour. Director Barrie Kosky pretty much returns the ‘batterie de cuisine’ – with interest! His Glyndebourne staging is a cornucopia of visual extravaganza, high-octane physicality and telling psychological insight. His is not an Old Testament vision, but one of an all-too-human world orbiting frailty, madness and love, with, at its heart, a dysfunctional family barely able to communicate without aggression. To Handel’s contemporaries there were political overtones, but Kosky sidesteps the regime-change route to pursue an approach that points up striking similarities with King Lear.

Pivotal is Christopher Purves’s Saul – surely the father-in-law from hell should the Goliath-slaying David choose his daughter Michal (or son Jonathan – tenderly sung by Paul Appleby). Purves has always done rage and menace to the manner born, but his slide into ever-deepening madness is terrifying for its visceral immediacy. Never mind that the written notes blur into a kind of half-sung speech at times. Theatre and drama conspire against oratorio niceties. His is a tour de force to rival the diametrically opposed inscrutable calm that is Iestyn Davies’s David, an enigma who casts a spell – for good or ill – over anyone who crosses his path. Just as beguiling are Lucy Crowe and Sophie Bevan as the chalk and cheese sisters; John Graham-Hall’s Witch takes grotesquerie to the next level, and Benjamin Hulett multi-tasks with aplomb. Kosky describes himself as an ‘extravagant minimalist’, a paradox whose twin components are both powerfully on display whether in the un-still-life of the opening or the black outer-inner-space of Saul’s journey to the witch. Taut musical direction from Ivor Bolton consolidates a Glyndebourne bullseye.

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Paul Riley