Paving the way for the triumph of home-grown music over continental, Saul was presented in 1739 as part of a London season notable for the complete absence of Italian opera. It was a revolutionary work in many ways. It was the first English oratorio with a male lead; it was the longest English music theatre work to date; and it required larger forces than any theatre work previously performed in England.
Harry Christophers delivers a highly charged, dramatic reading of the score, from the grand, ceremonial opening choruses, through the more intimate court settings, right up to the spooky scene where the Witch of Endor raises the spirit of Samuel. Listen to the sonorous use of three trombones (a German import in their day) in the battle music. Military kettledrums (which Handel borrowed from the Tower of London) enhance the famous Dead March. David’s ravishing harp solos and a specially commissioned carillon complete the novel line up and Christophers gives each its moment in the spotlight.
Christopher Purves is Saul, a fine baritone and an even finer singing actor. His kingly descent through jealousy, fury and despair is meticulously mapped out with singing of enormous bite and panache. Although the historical precedent is debatable, David is more often sung by a countertenor, the ‘other worldly’ vocal quality suiting this passive protagonist. Christophers casts a mezzo, Sarah Connolly, and the gamble pays off. Dramatically cooler than Purves, her rich, smooth voice is a perfect foil and her rendition of O Lord whose mercies is heavenly. The excellent young tenor Robert Murray makes a mellifluous Jonathan, Elizabeth Atherton is a feisty (if slightly shrill) Merab and Joélle Harvey sings beautifully as a sympathetic Michal. It goes without saying that the Sixteen are magnificent throughout, offering an object lesson in how to shape Handel’s choruses.