Barrie Kosky’s production of Handel’s Saul was one of the big hits of an exceptional Glyndebourne season this year, and it has been revived for the Tour by Donna Stirrup with such verve that it’s tempting to say that this time around the staging is even more eye-catching, Otto Pichler’s choreography as revived by Silvano Marraffa and Merry Holden even more dazzling, and the musical direction by Laurence Cummings even more eloquent than when the production was first seen in July. Such is the ambition of the staging that it’s inevitable that one or two theatrical delights have had to be jettisoned for touring, but very little is lost thereby, especially since Katrin Lea Tag’s designs look as fresh as ever.
It helps that this new cast is almost the equal of the Festival one, so Tour audiences need not feel short-changed; in some ways, the singing even surpasses that of the first cast. Vocally, there’s not a sliver of difference in quality between the Saul of Christopher Purves and that of Henry Waddington, but histrionically they are contrasted, with Purves more Lear-like in his tempestuous rages and Waddington resembling Shakespeare’s fallen King in his more achingly vulnerable moments. Waddington’s Handelian line is as steady as Purves’, and he is equally adept at making you see both the distracted father and the jealous tyrant.
Saul’s son Jonathan was given a very fine performance by Benjamin Hulett, who had impressed us in the smaller roles of High Priest / Abner / Amalekite in the Festival; this is a real Handel tenor, capable of impressive agility and ease of articulation as well as the warmth of tone needed for Saul’s compassionate son. Hulett’s July roles were here taken by yet another very fine tenor, Stuart Jackson; after hearing him in the Wigmore Hall Song Competition, we predicted that he would be “snapped up pretty soon by even the larger opera houses,” and it’s no surprise that he made a strong impact here with the powerful ease of his tone and his confident stage manner.
Confidence was also on show in the David of Christopher Ainslie, but in his case this applied mainly to his fine acting and stage presence, since on this occasion his very light, sweet counter-tenor did not sound at its best; however, he silenced an array of ‘impressive’ audience coughers with a beautifully phrased ‘O Lord, whose Mercies Numberless.’ Anna Devin’s visually striking Michal seemed to be affected by a touch of first night nerves but she sang her music with verve in Part II and presented a credibly sympathetic character. Her older sister Merab was given all the required hauteur by Sarah Tynan, surprisingly making her house debut; as always, she sang with truly Handelian style. Colin Judson was luxury casting as the Witch of Endor, his finely astringent voice ideal for this part, although as before not everyone will be positive about how this character is conceived.
Once again, Jeremy Bines had done stunning work with the Glyndebourne chorus; as we said last time, this is a chorus which has few equals and it would be difficult to imagine Handel’s grand choral ensembles better sung. Not only did they have to perform music which was never meant to be part of an operatic staging – as an oratorio the work would have entailed singing from a score – but they had to engage in complex actions and expressions of a kind rarely expected from a chorus. They did it all brilliantly.
Laurence Cummings obtained very fine playing from the Tour Orchestra, inspiringly led by Richard Milone and with particularly notable ‘cello and theorbo continuo from Jonathan Tunnell and Paula Chateauneuf respectively. The six dancers are the apotheosis of joy in their intricate routines, and the whole production does Handel proud; it’s brilliantly funny when required, utterly heartbreaking when appropriate and it presents some of the most vivid and striking stage pictures you’re ever likely to experience. If you think you know ‘How excellent Thy name, o Lord’ or ‘Welcome, Welcome, Mighty King’ – wait until you see them in this staging.
Booking information for Saul on tour can be found here: glyndebourne.com/tickets-and-whats-on/events/2015/handels-saul/