It was in the 1730s
that Handel started to compose oratorios
on English texts. Saul was composed
in 1738 and was the first one for which
Charles Jennens wrote the libretto.
In many ways Saul
is a remarkable oratorio. More than
in his previous oratorios we meet the
opera composer: Saul is a very
dramatic work which is underlined by
the pace with which the events around
Saul, his son Jonathan and David develop.
This pace is enhanced by the fact that
a number of arias are short and without
The choir regularly
plays a role of its own: it depicts
the Israelites, singing the praise of
David at the beginning of the first
act - and by doing so causing the jealousy
of Saul - and at the end, when it joins
David in the lament on the death of
Saul and Jonathan.
The orchestra is used
to great dramatic effect. It includes
unusual instruments like the carillon
and large military drums. The harp and
the organ also appear as solo instruments.
Also interesting are
the characters: not only was their number
unusually large (11), but they are also
quite sharply portrayed. The strongly
different profiles of Saul's daughters
Merab and Michal are a good example,
as is the development in the character
It is a shame that
this performance doesn't bring those
qualities out. As a whole it is lacklustre
and without real commitment from all
participants. An indication is the lack
of pace: most tempi are rather slow,
contradicting the momentum of events.
The recording is not
complete. Several numbers have been
cut, but the booklet doesn't say so.
Therefore I don't know whether the original
performance was complete and the cuts
have been made to make the recording
fit two CDs or whether the performance
itself was incomplete. My guess is the
latter is the case.
One of the main deficiencies
of this recording is the orchestra.
It doesn't play badly, but its playing
is utterly undramatic. It doesn't give
the singers any real support in the
representation of their characters.
Due to the often unnatural pauses between
numbers this performance just drags
on. It is ironic that where one would
expect a short pause there is none:
when Saul's servant Doeg comes to arrest
David he sings: "Show me his chamber",
and then, having discovered there is
only an image in the bed: "Do you mock
the king?". One would expect a short
pause here, to suggest Doeg looking
into the bed, but here both lines are
sung at a stretch without a moment of
silence between them.
As I have said, the
singers aren't really supported by the
orchestra, but they are not doing a
great job anyway. I wouldn't say the
casting is bad. In fact, the singers
for the roles of Saul's daughters are
rather well-chosen. Merab and Michal
are very different characters: Merab
every inch a bitch, Michal much more
soft and gentle. The voices of Laurie
Reviol and Nancy Argenta are just as
different. Only Saul is really miscast:
Stephen Varcoe's voice doesn't have
the depth nor the sharp edges to give
this character any credibility.
The problem is that
the singing in general is rather mediocre.
Nancy Argenta is way past her prime,
singing with a constant wide vibrato
and also sounding very vulnerable, as
if she has to sing at half power. Laurie
Reviol doesn't make too much of her
Michael Chance isn't
really singing badly, but technically
not flawless: he has some problems with
upward leaps and in the upper register
his voice doesn't sound relaxed. His
expression is limited; the aria "Impious
wretch" doesn't make any impression.
The duet of Michal
and David ("O fairest of ten thousand
fair - O lovely maid") is bland; the
voices of Ms Argenta and Chance don't
blend very well either.
The attempt of Michael
Berner to sing the role of the Witch
like an old woman is rather pathetic
and utterly unconvincing.
Not only cuts have
been made: the part of the harp is played
on the lute, and the carillon has been
replaced by a celesta, an instrument
which was developed only in the second
half of the 19th century!
All criticisms of aspects
of this recording apart, the main thing
is that it is very undramatic, and that
is a deadly sin. It makes this release
superfluous. Who cares then that the
booklet doesn’t give the libretto?
Johan van Veen