Ein alter Mann ist stets ein König Lear – as Goethe wrote, every old man is a King Lear, and it is Shakespeare’s patriarch, along with his Fool and his daughters, whose disintegration and downfall are the inspiration for this visually stunning, gloriously sung production by Barrie Kosky, making his Glyndebourne directing debut and providing the house with a definite hit, received with the nearest thing to wild abandon which this sophisticated audience can muster.
Saul is not one of those pieces which Peter Jonas used to call a “Sauna opera” – something which will allow you to bathe in a warm glow: in fact it’s not an opera at all, but the first of Handel’s great oratorios. Like Jephtha and Theodora it combines wonderful music with fascinating characters whose narratives may not always seem the stuff of theatre but which come alive with the right director, conductor and singers. All of these are present in abundance here.
Ivor Bolton is one of the greatest Handelians of our – or any other – time, and his conducting gave evidence of this in every phrase. Depth of love and understanding of the music, eloquent and persuasive management of the players and sympathetic accompaniment of the singers shone from the pit, and he was equalled by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, who have never played better.
The Chorus, superbly trained by Jeremy Bines, gave as fine an account of Handel’s great choral pieces as we’ve ever heard; it was almost impossible to recall that these were not intended to be performed from memory, so vibrant and gripping was the singing. A great deal was asked of them, both vocally and histrionically, and they gave it all they had; ‘O fatal consequence’ alone would be sufficient to demonstrate that this is a chorus to equal the world’s best.
Much was asked of the soloists, too. Christopher Purves is a magnificent Saul, veering Lear-like from towering rage (‘I will do such things!’) to demented anguish yet always producing steady, truly Handelian line. Iestyn Davies sang David with heroic purity, ‘O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless’ characteristic of his sweetness of tone, graceful ornamentation and nuanced phrasing. David’s music is perhaps not only the most beautiful but most varied in the work, from fast, dramatic arias – ‘Such haughty beauties’ – to solemn recitative – ‘O Jonathan ‘ and Davies gave it all the most touching eloquence.
Lucy Crowe’s Merab was sung with the sparkling brilliance we have come to expect from this Glyndebourne favourite, and Sophie Bevan, making her house debut, was a sympathetic Michal, although the way in which she had been characterized might not be everyone’s idea of a girl ‘…as mild as she is fair.’ Paul Appleby, another first timer here, sang Jonathan with sincerity and commitment, and Benjamin Hulett created a strong impression as Abner, the High Priest and the Amalekite. John Graham-Hall made much of the small role of the Witch of Endor, although as with the concept of Michal, not everyone will warm to the presentation of this character.
The two parts of the work are conceived here as absolute contrasts: in the first, all is vibrant colour and celebration, the king’s commands concerning his daughters every bit as imperious as those of Lear, and the chorus seen as elegantly foppish courtiers. In the second, colour has drained from the stage just as it has from Saul’s life, and we witness his disintegration and the inevitable rise of David, triumphing over the grief which no language could express to become the succeeding ruler. Katrin Lea Tag’s designs range from the ironic brilliance of lavishly set flower-laden banquets to the sober austerity of a black stage lit with many flickering candles, with contrasting costumes to match. Joachim Klein’s lighting is similarly evocative, often surprising by its muted subtlety, and Otto Pichler’s choreography echoes both the vibrancy of the first part and the sombre quality of the second.
Amongst the many aspects which Saul and King Lear share, is the absence of a maternal presence; in Shakespeare, girls such as Desdemona, Cordelia and Ophelia keep the house and look after the elderly father, who rewards them with disapproval of their choice of husband or their frankness, and in the case of Polonius with making use of his child to further his own ambitions. Saul’s daughters are also motherless, and as with Lear they are to be used as political material as and when it suits the patriarch. It’s thus entirely understandable that a director should wish to suggest images of maternal nurture, but for some the way in which this is achieved may be a little too much to take.
Similarly, some might feel that David’s words ‘Great was the pleasure I enjoyed in thee / And more than woman’s love thy wondrous love to me’ have been taken a shade too literally in some scenes. Judge for yourself: you most certainly should see this production, which in its combination of superb singing and playing with inventive if at times troubling interpretation, almost equals that of another iconic Glyndebourne staging, the legendary Peter Sellars Theodora.