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More than woman''s love

10/13/2002 -  
George Frideric Handel: Saul
Susan Gritton (Merab), Nancy Argenta (Michal), Andreas Scholl (David), Mark Padmore (Jonathan), Neal Davies (Saul)

Gabrieli Consort and Players

Paul McCreesh (conductor)

Live performances of Handel's Saul have been surprisingly rare in the past few years when Jephthas and Theodoras have been coming out of the woodwork. Although it is not based on a theatrical source as the late oratorios are, but, like the near-contemporary Messiah and Israel in Egypt, on a cento of scriptural adaptations, often set in quasi-liturgical style, Saul is undoubtedly a great work of musical drama. It foreshadows middle-period Verdi (not only Nabucco) in its themes of male bonding and rivalry and in its apparently formulaic but intensely dramatic music, which risks banality in the wrong hands, or to unsympathetic ears. Although Christof Loy is staging a production in Munich next year, this performance by the Gabrielis (part of a recording tour) is the first in London by a first-rank ensemble in recent memory.

Paul McCreesh's work has at times been on the cool side, going on damp. This Saul was lucid and austere, but somehow missing the anguish at the work's centre. This wasn't the fault of Neal Davies in the title role: he may not be taller than other men, but he sang the music with full understanding and sinister rage. He didn't get much help from orchestra, though. Andreas Scholl's David was deprived of his harp by a textual variant, but he had internalised his part even more thoroughly than Davies and sang most of his music without a score and with glorious freedom and beauty. His outburst at the Amalekite was almost scary. There wasn't quite an erotic tension between him and Mark Padmore as Jonathan, but Padmore sounded suitably heroic, in a butcher register than usual. He looked weary, though -- perhaps he is aging like a hyperactive prime minister while the PM has the bloom of a blameless lyric tenor.

Nancy Argenta stepped in for an indisposed Deborah York as the nice girl Michal and was as always reliable and charming, while Susan Gritton was good and bad as the bad girl Merab who finally comes round in some of the work's most complex music.

The high points, though, were the set pieces: the celebration of David's victory with jingling tubalcain was exhilarating, then febrile, quite enough to send a paranoid king over the edge; Saul's visit to the Witch of Endor (a theatrical chestnut in Handel's time) was understatedly dark and doom laden; and the final sequence of mourning arias was profoundly moving. A certain lack of focus by the chorus was compensated by some first-rate performances of its members in the smaller roles.

H.E. Elsom



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