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God-like youth

04/28/2003 -  and 4, 8, 10, 12 May
George Frideric Handel: Saul
Alastair Miles (Saul), John Mark Ainsley (Jonathan), David Daniels (David), Rebecca Evans (Merab), Rosemary Joshua (Michal), Kevin Conners (High Priest), Robert Tear (Witch of Endor), Jonathan Lemalu (Apparition of Samuel), Robert Gardner (Abner), Jacques-Greg Belobo (Doeg), Manolito Mario Franz (Amalekite), Thomas Diestler (Adriel)

Ivor Bolton (conductor), Christof Loy (director)

Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper

Handel's Saul has apparently been staged far more than any other of his oratorios. There are many possible reasons for this, not least the work's affinities with King Lear or Verdi's middle period operas, where a king or patriarch is tormented and destroyed by his family. But Saul, following Esther, Deborah and Athalia as it does, is in some ways the last of Handel's early oratorios an untheatrical collection of set pieces on a biblical-national theme. The core of the drama -- Saul's madness and the love of Jonathan and David -- appears in scanty fragments of action among tribal and moralizing choruses, sentimental arias and instrumental tours de force. There is little sense of the imaginary theatre that emerges in the later oratorios based on dramatic sources (Theodora and Jephtha especially, but also Semele). A literal staging of Saul risks being an unwieldy spear-and-sandals effort with painterly interludes.

Christof Loy, in his new production for the Bayerische Staatsoper, resolutely avoids staging the implicit biblical epic. He effectively removes the characters and the chorus from any reconstructed context and depicts them explicitly in relation to us, today's audience, in a relationship that develops as we are presumed to have responded to the unfolding action. At the start, the performance is simply a performance of Handel's Saul, in a hall that turns out later to be a synagogue. The chorus, an incomprehensible projection of a pre-modern nation, wear white eighteenth-century dress, while the soloists, already known to be people something like us, wear modern concert dress. During the overture, the chorus and soloists move in different time frames, the chorus freezing while the soloists prepare for the concert and vice versa. Saul and David both show up just in the nick of time, David carrying his music and briefcase instead of Goliath's head. As the people of Israel become more engaged in Saul's family crisis, their dress and behaviour become more modern, until they hail David as king dressed in bright colours and exuding celebrity worship that borders on fanaticism. (They appear in European Jewish dress in the synagogue for the feast of the new moon, presumably because the Jewish ritual is marked explicitly in the music.) The main characters, once the singing starts, simply act out the drama between individuals.

On the whole it works, often to deeply moving effect. It would be enough if the production did nothing to harm what was at the first performance clearly an outstanding musical achievement, but it is often strikingly aware of the music. Loy's approach is substantially different from Peter Sellars' in his Glyndebourne Theodora, the onlie begetter of all subsequent oratorio stagings, above all because Loy evokes humanity embodied in individuals where Sellars creates a poetry of ideas that project abstract emotions. But both are expert, for example, in using the chorus to enact the sense of their music, in theme and rhythm, and in working with singers on the rhetoric of their arias. Loy's staging of the "Envy" chorus that opens act two is characteristic: the chorus, dressed in black, lunge at Saul in sinister, nearly mechanical waves. The action might not be clear to anyone ignorant of the story, but the overall effect is always visually and emotionally striking.

The mainly Anglophone cast were generally ideal in their roles. Rebecca Evans as the initially haughty Merab was not much more than strident (though her bollocking of Saul in "Capricious man" suggested that she was not a woman to pick a fight with). Rosemary Joshua as her good-girl sister Michal had an other-worldly platinum glow and a pure but powerful voice, and was often quite beautiful. Alastair Miles has one of the most beautiful bass-baritone voices in the business, and you wished that Saul had a lot more music: Handel's decision to reduce the role of Saul left Miles with little to do except look distraught, but he managed to suggest noble wreckage. John Mark Ainsley as Jonathan and David Daniels as David were a slightly unlikely couple, verging on middle age (and not noticeably younger that Saul), but very touching, particularly in the asymmetry of their affection. Daniels sang with incredible sweetness, sounding glorious in his duet with Joshua, but always the star performer who doesn't know where his gift comes from and is grateful for adoration though he can't return it completely. Ainsley sang with more obvious art, getting expression from every word and musical gesture.

Robert Tear had laryngitis, so the Witch of Endor (a bag lady, inevitably perhaps) croaked rhythmically. The other minor parts were well filled, particularly by another sweet tenor, Kevin Conners, as the High Priest who hymns the power of music.

The chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper were only the odd English vowel short of perfect, and the orchestra under Ivor Bolton were impeccable, achieving wonderful delicacy and focus in the large space of the Nationaltheater.

HE Elsom



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