Glyndebourne hit leads Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy’s inaugural programme – but don’t expect blood and dildos.

The Adelaide Festival has announced that Barrie Kosky’s acclaimed production of Handel’s Saul will be its headline show for 2017. The visually dazzling, emotionally thrilling staging had international critics falling over themselves for superlatives when it opened as part of Glyndebourne Opera’s summer season last year. “The production is a triumph. Nearly every aspect of Kosky’s creative vision grabs audience attention,” wrote Howard Shepherdson reviewing for Limelight. “The stage pictures are as lush as the baroque music that accompanies them providing the audience with a visual and aural feast.”

Booking a known success story so hot off the press is something of a rarity on the festival circuit, so Artistic Directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy deserve credit for defying logistics to bag this triumph for the centrepiece of their inaugural festival. The latest instalment in a creative partnership that goes back to either Cloudstreet or The Seagull at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre in 1997 (they banter about whose memory is more acute on that point), the pair enjoyed what Armfield describes as a “simpatico” relationship for ten years before being recruited more recently to head up the Adelaide Festival.

The legendary Kosky is also no stranger to Adelaide, having directed a triumphant Festival in 1996 (at 29, he was their youngest ever Artistic Director), yet surprisingly this will be the first work of his that will have been staged there. “There’s been a lot of water under the bridge,” admits the one time enfant terrible of Australian theatre, speaking over the phone from his home in Berlin where he currently heads up that city’s Komische Oper. But after creating 40 operas since leaving Australia of which only three or four have been seen at home, “it’s nice to be able to show a representative piece,” he says.

South Australia’s Minister for the Arts, the Hon Jack Snelling welcomed the news saying that Saul will not only bring in a huge number of interstate and overseas travellers (the festival is hoping for 50% of the opera’s audience over the four performances), but that it will also provide an opportunity for local artists who get to perform alongside some of the world’s best opera singers and baroque musicians. “Rachel Healy and Neil Armfield have worked really hard to bring this incredible opera to our state, and I can’t wait to see what else they have in store for next year,” he added.

Opera is clearly a vital part of Armfield’s life – his Ring Cycle will be revived in Melbourne in November and he’s off to the US for a new production of The Magic Flute after that. “We wanted to bring back the Festival Opera,” he admits, referring to the heydays of Jim Sharman and Elijah Moshinsky’s festivals when works like Britten’s Death in Venice, Janáček’s The Markopoulos Case and Richard Meale’s Voss topped the bills. It was Armfield who first saw Saul in the UK and was “blown away by its theatricality, musicality and its sense of joyous invention.” Healy is more of a theatre person, but she’s quick to say, “if there was a single piece that would convert people who didn’t know if they’d like opera”, then Saul is it.

Handel’s oratorio – biblical works were forbidden to be staged as opera – tackles head on the first King of Israel’s tempestuous relationship with the boy David whose relationship with the king’s son Jonathan is as threatening as his future claim to the throne. With lashings of jealousy, love, rage and despair, plus a creepy scene with the Witch of Endor, this is baroque opera at its most baroque, and Kosky was roundly applauded for going royally to town with the visual and dramatic aesthetics. “People were on the edge of their seats,” says Healy. “It really is that special.”

Reprising the title role from the original Glyndebourne production will be British bass-baritone Christopher Purves, one of the finest actors on the operatic stage, and last seen in Australia as Walt Disney in Philip Glass’s The Perfect American at the Brisbane Festival. His searing vocal rendition of the role has been preserved in Harry Christophers’ excellent recording on Coro.

Helpmann Award-winning American counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey, last seen as the panty-sniffing villain in Brisbane Baroque’s Faramondo, will sing David, while Australian tenor Adrian Strooper, a member of Kosky’s Komische Oper company plays Saul’s son (and David’s lover) Jonathan. Rising star British soprano Mary Bevan and Australia’s Taryn Fiebig will play Saul’s richly contrasting daughters Merab and Michal, Stuart Jackson reprises his Glyndebourne turn as the High Priest – in Kosky’s production a flamboyant Master of Ceremonies – while Kanen Breen promises to steal the show as the Witch of Endor. The conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will be the dynamic Erin Helyard, newly appointed sole Artistic Director of Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera, award-winning Musical Director of Brisbane Baroque, and all round star of Australian baroque performance. A chorus of 40, as well as six dancers from the original production, complete the cast.

Applauding the staging, Armfield declared opera to be the greatest of artforms. “With opera, you want ignition,” he said, “and Barrie has plenty of fire… Sitting in the Glyndebourne Festival audience in August 2015 it could not have been clearer that we were witnessing an artist at the peak of his powers. Barrie has created a work that is deservedly being regarded as a masterpiece.”

As for Melbourne-born, Berlin-based Kosky, his work in Germany has been building a huge following over the last decade with major successes like his world-touring Magic Flute, a recent gritty take on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron, and a gloriously entertaining Tales of Hoffmann. At the culmination of his first Komische Oper season the venue was voted Opera House of the Year by 50 critics and they won the International Opera Award for Opera Company in 2015.

Saul is a project long close to his heart. Speaking warmly of the piece, Kosky explains that it was one of the first Handel oratorios that he came to know and that he has been carrying the music in his head for 30 years. Asked if his directorial style has changed from the, at times, controversial violence and sexual imagery of his earlier Australian outings, he admits that he would prefer not to be remembered simply for a certain outré theatrical style, though “visceral” is a term he happily embraces. “People remember the blood and the dildos, but there are many more flowers in the garden,” he reflects.

Saul will play the Adelaide Festival Theatre from March 3-9, 2017