★★★★★ Barrie Kosky ventures forth from Berlin to triumph at Glyndebourne.

Glyndebourne, UK
July 29, 2015

In 1739 when Handel first performed his oratorio Saul, the depiction of biblical life on an opera stage did not sit well with a strongly protestant culture. The oratorio format was the only possible route to commercial success for biblical themes. The by-product of this difficulty has fortunately left us with an oratorio of operatic proportion, full of sublime music and a libretto serving strong doses of intrigue, family breakdown, sexual infatuation, jealousy and mental breakdown. 

No wonder Australian born director Barrie Kosky accepted Glyndebourne’s invitation to stage this work as an opera. The production is a triumph. Nearly every aspect of his creative vision grabs audience attention and the musical part of the partnership, under the baton of conductor Ivor Bolton, is world class. Kosky once said that when he goes to the theatre himself he wants to be surprised, bewildered, shocked and transformed. Any member of the Glyndebourne audience will testify to having run the gamut of these emotions while watching Saul.

Michal (Sophie Bevan) and David (Iestyn Davies) with Chorus © Bill Cooper

The problem for any director breathing stage life into a concert piece is what to do with the chorus. Kosky is aided, if not inspired, by a 40-strong ensemble that shows both vocal power and finesse combined with boundless energy. No request during rehearsal seems to have fazed them and they play a central role in Kosky’s stage vision. The partnership with his designer Katrin Lea Tag has also paid dividends. The performance opens with a massive banquet table which looks like a Dutch still life painting featuring succulent fruit, exotic animals and sensational floral displays. The singers lean and twist across the table top dressed in 18th-century costumes like oversized, periwigged insects and brothel house grotesques.

In front of the tables on a raked stage covered in granulated black earth, lies the giant head of a defeated and decapitated Goliath. Kosky and his team have created an 18th-century fantasy world in head-on collision with modern physical theatre.

There are other moments of great visual power including hundreds of candles placed in the black earth and at the end of the opera a battlefield covered in half buried bodies. The stage pictures are as lush as the baroque music that accompanies them providing the audience with a visual and aural feast. However, the design never detracts from the storytelling and Kosky’s singers fully commit to communicating their tragic tale of triumph and decline. We understand what motivates each character and are sometimes horrified witnesses to their emotional and political journey. The story of Saul and his daughters, his son Jonathan and the dynamic outsider David grips us in a way that church readings of the Old Testament often fail to do.

Saul (Christopher Purves) © Bill Cooper

Christopher Purves, who sings the role of Saul, knows the part well from his oratorio performances. Without the restraint of the concert platform he occupies the role completely.  Purves depicts a king wrought with jealousy whose mental decline it is tragic to witness. The sheer physicality he brings to the role, combined with some magnificent singing is very impressive. It is claimed that Handel had in mind Shakespeare’s King Lear and Purves embraces this notion to devastating effect.

Amongst a strong cast of singers the other person who requires special mention is Iestyn Davies who sings the counter tenor role of David. The purity of line he produces and the beauty of his tone are ravishing. It is no surprise that Saul’s daughter Michal (Sophie Bevan) and son Jonathon (Paul Appelby) both fall in love with him. A counter tenor does not usually have the longevity of other operatic voices, but here is a singer at his peak and well worth following to future engagements.

Related: View the complete Saul gallery

Kosky may be controversial in some of his production style, but he rarely uses directorial dictat without regard to the score and the shifting patterns of the music. Being a musician himself probably explains his ability to follow a creative idea and at the same time remain true to what can be heard and felt through the music. With Handel this is particularly so. Every exuberant grouping, every still moment of emotion is anchored in the score. Sadly Saul is not scheduled for cinematic broadcast as yet, nor will it be shown on the internet as a live podcast, but it is being revived for the 2015 Glyndebourne tour. For those of you able to be in England this autumn do not hesitate to travel to see it at any venue. Otherwise just be patient. This production is a keeper and Glyndebourne is bound to promote it as part of future seasons. We may even see one of the many talented Australian singers cast in a revival. Glyndebourne take note!