The curtain rises on a large severed head sitting on a sea of crumbly black ash. As the camera pans in tightly, we see blood encrusted in the corner of the eyes and mouth, while one eye socket is smashed. It is the head of Goliath after his defeat by the triumphant young warrior David, now hero of the Israelites.
Behind, an enormous table is heaped with floral arrangements, fruit, animal carcasses and an elegant swan. Clustered around the rather macabre banquet, the cast gleam in brightly coloured 18th-century costumes with extravagant wigs and make-up lending them a slightly crazed air. Bathed in Joachim Klein’s sickly lighting, the extravagant tableau looks like a warped Flemish still-life where everything is so lusciously overripe it will soon turn fetid.
So begins Barrie Kosky’s wildly imaginative production of Handel’s oratorio Saul, which received rave reviews when it premiered at Glyndebourne in 2015. Programmed as the centrepiece of the 2017 Adelaide Festival, here is a chance to see the original Glyndebourne cast, while the camera allows you an up-close look at the performers and vivid visual imagery.
Working with designer Katrin Lea Tag, Kosky presents Handel’s original three acts in two parts: the first full of saturated colour, the second monochromatic. Image after startling image creates a surreal, nightmarish, grotesquely beautiful Baroque world: the chorus pawing David, a lactating Witch of Endor suckling the unhinged Saul, a stage full of flickering candles, hands scuttling insect-like over Saul’s head, a battlefield of half-buried bodies.
The extraordinary visuals are matched by top-notch musical values. Conducted by Ivor Bolton, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment plays Handel’s glorious music with great verve. The singing is also excellent. As the Lear-like Saul, driven mad by jealousy of David, Christopher Purves gives a dramatically unnerving, restlessly physical performance, the camera capturing the increasing madness in his eye. Iestyn Davies’ exquisitely sung David, by contrast, is frequently still, his sphinx-like expression revealing little.
There are also powerful performances from Paul Appleby as Jonathan, and Lucy Crowe and Sophie Bevan as Saul’s daughters Merab and Michal – all in thrall to David. The 40-strong chorus sing superbly and throw themselves into Kosky’s theatrical demands, while Otto Pichler’s choreography for six dancers brings a mad energy to the big ensemble numbers. Effectively captured for the screen, with excellent sound, this is a justly acclaimed production.