Where do you start with Saul? The energy? My God! The joyous madness of it all? The singing? The acting? If, as some people say, opera is an art form in need of a makeover, Barrie Kosky’s staging of Handel’s blockbuster biblical oratorio is the full facial with tummy tuck.

Saul company and chorus. Photos © Tony Lewis

From the first glimpse of the washed-up head of Goliath, emerging from the gloom with its baleful, beady eye, to the chorus’s elated eruption of How excellent thy name, O Lord, the Australian director, who now runs Berlin’s anarchic Komische Oper, uses all of his skill and theatrical daring to dazzle, delight, divert and dissect.

Handel’s 1738 English language masterpiece was built to prop up a faltering Italian opera season and conceived on the grandest scale imaginable. Orchestral effects included a carillon (a keyboard built to imitate chiming bells), a harp to accompany the ‘shepherd’ David, a chamber organ that the composer played himself (here finessed by Musical Director Erin Helyard, a man with more than a few surprises up his lacy sleeve), three trombones for the famous Dead March, and larger than normal kettledrums borrowed for the occasion from the Tower of London no less. In short, Saul is the most excessively ‘baroque’ of Handel’s oratorios, and its creative exuberance is mirrored in Kosky’s fantastical staging, first seen in 2015 at England’s Glyndebourne Opera.

Designer Katrin Lea Tag’s stage is essentially bare, its raked floor strewn with a black dirt out of which climbs a bloodied but victorious David. Behind him, a motley collection of vividly caparisoned and monstrously bewigged courtiers perch on gigantic tables among enormous fruit bowls, floral tributes and the odd roasted swan or oversized haunch of venison. This Baroque with a capital ‘B’ chorus are simultaneously observers and partakers in a drama that plays out with more than an echo of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress paintings of Bedlam. Panting, leering or dancing up a storm, every moment bursts with chaotic vigour, yet bristles with intent, our attention focussed by Kosky’s sure and skilled directorial hand.

Mary Bevan as Merab and Adrian Strooper as Jonathan

Crucially, however, it’s not all just visual wham, bam and thank you ma’am. There’s a family at stake here and Kosky proceeds to make us care about them. When David walks into Saul’s life, it’s not just his two daughters whose lives are disturbed by this sexually ambiguous, passive yet dangerous youth. Saul’s son Jonathan, and even the king himself will have their libidos troubled as, Mr Sloane-like, David wreaks his special brand of havoc.

On another level, the subject at the heart of Kosky’s vision is madness, and the singer at the heart of Saul is British baritone Christopher Purves. A prodigiously talented actor, he embraces Kosky’s decision to allow a seemingly spontaneous use of extemporised spoken text. In the wrong hands this could feel naff or eggy, but with Purves – and the other singers – it is invariably deployed to ratchet up dramatic tension. This Saul’s madness is imbued with the dignity and nuance of a King Lear, Purves’ fluttering hands playing around his bald pate, clutching at things that both are and aren’t actually there. Vehement one moment, piteous the next, his fearless physicality even sees him looping the loop at one stage. Vocally he sings with grit and power, comfortable with Handel’s demanding coloratura, while tastefully judging when to come off the voice to add a dash of bewilderment or unhinged fury.

Purves’ adversary is American countertenor Christopher Lowrey, a rising star that Australians have been fortunate enough to see in Brisbane Baroque’s 2015 Faramondo and Pinchgut’s recent Theodora. His David has just the right degree of vocal sensuality to lend his sexual exploits credibility. With a clean tone, easy lyricism and fine diction, he caresses the vocal line in a ravishing O Lord, whose mercies numberless, while conquering the awkward leaps in Impious wretch, of race accurst! His acting is first rate, capturing a real ‘never quite sure what his motive is’ complexity in the character.

Christopher Lowrey as David and Christopher Purves as Saul

As Saul’s pair of feisty daughters, Mary Bevan and Taryn Fiebig are nicely contrasted. Bevan, one of the finest of the current younger generation of British singers, is a furious firecracker of a Merab, her potent, supple soprano able to fire off the fusillades early on, yet capable of spinning a radiant line in her later laments (From this unhappy day is breath-taking). Fiebig, one of Australia’s most experienced Mozartians, brings all of that passion to bear as the more sympathetic Michal. Strong and confidant in a string of busy arias, she’s warm and winning, jumping around like a bouncy puppy when she finally thinks she’s got her man.

Australian tenor Adrian Strooper comes across well as the conflicted Jonathan, torn three ways between father, friend and would-be lover. His light, lyrical voice works well at the top, but he’s underpowered in the lower register and so gets a little lost at times beneath Handel’s substantial orchestral forces.

On the other hand, British tenor Stuart Jackson’s appealing, clarion tones and pin-point diction sail across the footlights loud and clear. Part master of ceremonies, part sinister clown, his frequent moralising smacks of devilry and rank hypocrisy. In ruff, white face, and sporting undulating purple talons, he’s magnetically watchable.

Mind you, Australian tenor Kanen Breen nearly manages to steal the show as a grizzled, ambisextrous Witch of Endor. The creepy musical scena with it’s spooky oboes and bassoons is justly famous and Breen sings and plays it for all it’s worth, his pendulous withered dugs even lactating milk when Saul sucks on his teat to summon up the ghost of Samuel (here neatly done as an internalised double act by Purves himself).

Christopher Lowrey, Adrian Strooper and company

Normally in charge of a period band, Erin Helyard here leads the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and draws out a performance full of crisp energy, shapely phrasing and imaginative touches, especially in the continuo department. The splendid Josep Maria Marti Duran, who impressed mightily in Brisbane last year, is a superb theorbo and lutenist, Anthony Abouhamad plays a mean chamber organ continuo, while Helyard himself is captivating on harpsichord, switching to chamber organ to emerge Wurlitzer-like from under the stage in the second half to deliver a bubbly solo in full frock, flowing raven hair and lippy.

The State Opera Chorus under Brett Weymark is equally superb, not just singing with power, focus and discipline, but in Kosky’s hands – and Otto Pichler’s inventive choreography – crackling with enough energy to power the SA electricity grid for a month. The cheeky sextet of dancers from the original Glyndeboune production reprise their Pulchinello-like magic, drawing gasps and gusts of laughter in equal measure.

As with Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, hopefully in 30 year’s time people will look back saying, “Ah, but do you remember Barrie Kosky’s Saul in 2017?” This is the kind of theatre that makes you want to laugh and cry; to shout out loud and sing Alleluia until you are hoarse. In short, Saul is a big fat wodge of heaven on earth.

Saul is at the Festival Theatre until March 9

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