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Handel saul 805604
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George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Saul (1738) [158.00]
Florian Boesch, bass-baritone (Saul), Jake Arditti, counter-tenor (David), Anna Prohaska, soprano (Merab), Giulia Semenzato, soprano (Michal), Rupert Charlesworth, tenor (Jonathan), David Webb, tenor (Abner, High Priest, Doëg), Rafał Tomkiewicz, mezzo-soprano (Witch of Endor), Andrew Morstein, tenor (Amalekite)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Christopher Moulds
rec. April 2021, Theater an der Wien, Vienna
UNITEL 805604 Blu-ray [158 mins]

The revival of Handel’s operas in “authentic” performances, seeking to conform to the practices of the composer’s own day, tended (at least in European opera houses) to coincide with the growth of what became known as the Regietheater style of direction. This is not so surprising when one considers the nature of Handel’s original texts, which often played merry hell with the original forms of the Graeco-Roman myths and historical events or the phantasmagorical plots on which the libretti were supposedly based. The adventures of Handel’s heroes and heroines in enchanted realms positively seemed to incite the most extreme instincts of directors seeking above all to make a visual and dramatic impact on their long-suffering audiences, even when their experimentation ran into direct conflict with the very authenticity which the performers themselves were attempting to emulate. The fashion for staging Handelian oratorio, on the other hand, suffered somewhat less from the more extravagant treatment meted out to the operas. In the first place, although the oratorio scores often contained stage directions which were an indispensable part of the whole presentation, these – being more closely modelled on Biblical or theological material – lent themselves less to wholesale reinterpretation, and proved to be less amenable to the amiable ridicule that a good many productions of the baroque opera seemed to incite from its practitioners. Even when the period of the action was bodily shifted to a later era – as in Peter Sellars’s production of Theodora for Glyndebourne back in the 1990s – the music proved to be well able to not only survive such as a bodily transplant, but even in places to benefit from it.

Parallels with Theodora certainly arise in the case of this production of Handel’s earlier Saul, the oratorio from his long final period of glory on which he lavished most expense in its original production. In the first place, and most noticeably, the producer Claus Guth has closely imitated Sellars’s hand gestures with which the chorus seek to replicate the dramatic impact of their words (the chorus of course playing a far more prominent musical role in the oratorios than in the earlier operatic scores). This is one of the least satisfactory innovations in this production, if only because we have seen all this before; and those who were impressed by the hieratic gestures of the sympathetic chorus in Theodora will be much less enthused by the automatic movements of the chorus here in Saul, especially when these seem to have little or no relevance to their engagement or otherwise with the words being sung. There must have been a strong temptation to obviate the problems by the trimming of the more extensive choral passages, and indeed I began to fear the worst when the opening chorus of rejoicing following David’s triumph over Goliath was omitted (although its later repeat was retained) and the trio describing the combat was re-assigned to the chorus; but this fortunately proved to be an exception and otherwise the text of the oratorio is delivered at full length exactly as Handel originally wrote it.

It has become something of a cliché over the years to rejoice over the musical performance of a Handelian score, only to spend much of the remainder of the review lamenting the visual imagery with which it has been saddled by the producer, and a recommendation that more sensitive members of the audience might wish to consider listening to the DVD or Blu-Ray with their eyes shut (even if that might obviate the principal reason for their purchase). But that is by no means entirely the case here; even when one might cavil at some of Guth’s treatment of his material, it is generally consonant with Handel’s score and in places might even be considered to enhance it. In the first place, as is common nowadays, the whole period is modernised, and one might even (more unusually) say fixed in a specific era which appears to be the 1920s or 1930s. Saul’s family sit down to celebrate David’s triumph at a long dinner table that might well have strayed directly from Downton Abbey, and although their behaviour would certainly have been regarded as contrary to the enforcedly polite etiquette of that period they do at least make some attempt to consume the soup and prawn cocktails that have been placed before them. The production also serves to point up the class distinctions between the Saul household (all impeccably dressed in their evening finery) and the proletarian David, who enters carrying Goliath’s head which he plonks down unceremoniously in the centre of the table (from which it is hastily and fastidiously removed) and is dressed straight from the building site with torn vest and disintegrating track-suit bottoms. It is not altogether surprising if both of Saul’s daughters as well as the suavely moustached Jonathan are all attracted by this bit of rough, and the only surprise is that by the time they are psychologically ready to transform their desire into physical action during Act Two, David has clearly made a conscious decision to ‘up his class’ and appears in a white tuxedo which makes him look even more like a gigolo. It is perhaps fortunate that Handel allowed so little time for the groping incipient orgy that ensues between all four of them, confined as it is to a single da capo aria before Saul emerges to put a stop to proceedings: “If virtue in that dress appear who, that sees, can love forbear?” Indeed.

Decidedly more contentious is Guth’s treatment of Saul’s madness and the dangers of the corruption of power (itself a distinctly nineteenth and twentieth century notion). At the very outset the King is seen confined to a ceramically tiled room where he has scrawled his name on the walls. Reviews of the original production seem to have charitably ascribed the medium for his graffiti as “mud” (the booklet here employs the more enigmatic word “soil”) but the whole situation certainly reminds any British viewer of the requisite age of the 1980s “dirty protest” staged by IRA prisoners in their cells during the Northern Irish troubles. After Saul’s death this brown excrement is sponged off the walls, only for David during his coronation to suddenly succumb to similar attack of Saul’s epilepsy and – similarly confined to the same cell – to scrawl his name with his own hands in a rather different shade of brown (perhaps a different diet?). This is one point at which the production certainly finds itself at odds with Handel’s music; the martial rejoicing of the chorus finds itself decidedly at odds with the image of mental disintegration witnessed on stage, and the lurking appearance of Saul as a ghost haunting the festivities similarly jars.

This is a pity, and lets down at the end a production which until that point has proved a good counterpart to Handel’s extended and often highly imaginative score. The singing of Florian Boesch in the title role has all the ardour and passion that one could desire – no merely polite baroque delivery here – and his English diction and sense of drama are both close to impeccable. As his two daughters, the imperious Merab and the more placable Michal, both Anna Prohaska and Giulia Semenzato occasionally display problems with distorted vowels and clouded words (subtitles are definitely required in places) but compensate with sparkling coloratura and some stunning displays of bravura in their upper registers. Jake Arditti makes a very male David where the counter-tenor register really pays dividends, and best of all the principal singers is Rupert Charlesworth whose tenor rings out cleanly and crisply in the best baroque style but also extends into a lyrical warmth which is most welcome. David Webb, doubling three roles including one point where he has to transform from one character to another within a matter of bars (he makes no attempt to actually do so), is a less impressive and more clearly baroque tenor although Andrew Mostein makes a strong impact in the third tenor role of the Amalekite who actually kills Saul. It is unfortunate that the staging of the end of Act Two is muffed so that it is unclear whether Saul actually kills Jonathan when he assaults him (the text in Act Three makes it clear that he does not). Rafał Tomkiewicz, who has already made several silent appearances as the lugubrious serving maid at the Saul family dinner parties (with shades of Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s film of Rebecca), transforms effectively into the Witch of Endor in Act Three; although at the same time the device of using Saul, singing with his back to the audience, to assume the role of the ghost of Samuel, seems simply cheap – Samuel is not reflecting in any way the thoughts of Saul, but rather contradicting him at every point.

The choral singing of the Arnold Schoenberg Choir is impeccable, thrusting and dramatic where needed and consolatory during the funeral music for Saul. Even more effective is the well-balanced and well-nourished orchestral playing, where the Freiburg Baroque instrumentalists respond well to the energetic and involved Christopher Moulds. He does not stint the drama (far from it), but at the same time during the more lyrical passages he is not afraid to allow the music to luxuriate in its own beauty. Among the players Jeremy Joseph may be a little reticent during his organ solos (Handel, writing the music for himself to play, would surely have indulged in more ostentatious display?), and Johanna Seitz could similarly be more forthright when David plays his harp. The solo recorder player in Michal’s “Fell rage and black despair possess’d” surely deserves an individual credit. The visual setting occasionally rises to the sphere of poetry, as with the projection of Rembrandt on the wall of the Saul household’s dining room, or the Ossianically disporting maidens at David’s feet during his Coronation scene, but otherwise are basically functional, serving to conceal or reveal characters as required. There are moments, as in the choruses which end Act One and begin Act Two, where the performance rises to heights of real grandeur.

The video production by Tiziano Mancini is expectedly excellent, with the cameras always pointing in the right direction (not as easy as it might seem) and close-ups enhancing the visual expressions of the singers. The subtitles have been carefully edited, with an alteration made to the line of the Witch of Endor when she sings “Woulds’t thou betray me?” instead of “…ensnare me?” although a few bars later she sings the nonsensical “did horror to the midnight hour” instead of “add horror”. Thus, while I still have my reservations about the viciously ironic ending (this is no Shostakovich-like homily on the horrors of power), the recording as a whole gives a generally well-reasoned and exceptionally musical performance of one of Handel’s great oratorios.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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