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Handel, Saul: BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales and Soloists, Nicholas Kraemer (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 25.3.2011 (GPu)

Saul: Roderick Williams (baritone)
David: Robin Blaze (countertenor)
Michal: Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Merab: Ann-Helen Moen (soprano)
Jonathan: Andrew Staples (tenor)
High Priest / Amalekite: James Geer (tenor)
Samuel / Doeg: Matthew Hargreaves (bass)
Witch / Abner: Ben Johnson (tenor)

In a 1971 article (Studies in English Literature, 11:3) entitled 'The Failure of Eighteenth-Century Tragedy', Eugene Hnatko did little more than affirm a truism when he offered the observation "that Eighteenth-Century tragedy is poor theatre is evident to all readers". The best in the genre that the drama of the period could produce amounted to plays such as Joseph Addison's Cato (1712) or Samuel Johnson's Irene (1749) - plays which now seem largely sterile period-pieces with little or no continuing power or relevance, which strike us as conceived and executed on the basis of inadequate ideas of the tragic. It is elsewhere that one has to look if one wants to see the success of Eighteenth-Century tragedy.

Primary amongst such successes one can count the best of Handel's oratorios - in some of which there is a vision (and a realisation) of the tragic mode superior to anything in the dramatic literature of the period (and, indeed, to almost everything in Handel's operas). Certainly Saul has a sense of tragic power which Shakespeare would have recognised and acknowledged. The name of Shakespeare is not irrelevant. The librettist of Saul, Charles Jennens - wealthy collector, connoisseur and patron of painting, music and letters - was a knowledgeable Shakespearean. He assembled a significant Shakespeare library and late in his life produced editions of five of Shakespeare's plays (King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello and Julius Caesar) which showed just how carefully he had thought about the text and structure of Shakespeare's tragedies. There is little that is Shakespearean about the detail of Jennen's use of English in the libretti he prepared for Handel (for Messiah and Belshazzar, as well as Saul), and some individual lines are decidedly unhappy; but what characterises these libretti is their sophisticated sense of structure. That of Saul is a minor masterpiece from that point of view. Out of the convoluted Biblical narratives of relations between Saul and David, Jennens, through an intelligent process of selection and abridgement, fidelityand invention, produced a coherent, purposeful text. Jennens' libretto - like Shakespeare's tragedies - confronts the nature of human self-destructiveness; locates sinfulness and wickedness in the great at a point where, in some sense or other, human and divine intersect;. It is vivid in its treatment both of public events and of inner life; and seeks to present characters of conflicted and ambiguous emotions, rather than the moral stereotypes who largely peopled the contemporary drama. Of course, it is precisely in some of those areas where Jennens' execution is inferior to his aspirations (as in the detailed articulation of human emotion) that Handel's music comes to the rescue, as it were, deepening Jennens' words with greater power and subtlety. In Saul the result is a remarkable and powerful work - Jennens having provided Handel with a text to the emotional and moral arc of which Handel could respond in ways that fulfilled all its obvious potential - and more.

In Roderick Williams this production was blessed with a singer well able to characterise the figure of Saul very persuasively, to bring out something like the full psychological potency and moral intelligence inherent in words and music. Williams has always been a singer whose work has what one might call textual intelligence, an alert but unmannered responsiveness to words, achieved without any disrespect to, or obfuscation of, musical line and texture. In airs such as 'With rage I shall burst his praises to hear!', Williams communicated a conviction that was both musically certain and (within the conventions of the form) psychologically plausible. Elsewhere Williams' control of recitative and accompagnato passages was exemplary, nowhere more so than in 'Wretch that I am, of my own ruin author!' at the beginning of Act Three, in which there was an overwhelming sense of a brave man coming simultaneously to a recognition of his own foolishness and to a resolution to face the consequences of that foolishness. (That there are echoes of Macbeth here is probably not accidental; Jennens would surely have been intrigued by the way in which Saul's moral and psychological trajectory ends with a meeting with the Witch of Endor, neatly reversing that of Macbeth's dealings with the witches).

While recognising that Williams stood out amongst the soloists, it should be stressed that absolutely no one came remotely close to letting the side down. Robin Blaze and Carolyn Sampson rarely give poor performances and this wasn't one of those rare occasions. Their duets exuded the kind of assurance one might expect from their past experience of working together and both produced fine moments. Blaze's opening to 'Impious wretch, of race accurst' was particularly effective and the whole of that remarkable air was startling and moving; in 'Fell rage and black despair possess'd' Sampson's subtlety of phrase and line was particularly impressive. It was announced pre-concert that Norwegian soprano Ann-Helen Moen was feeling unwell, but had agreed to sing. After a slightly tentative opening she actually sang very well. I hadn't heard her before, but I certainly didn't feel that her performance on this occasion needed any apology or special consideration - she acquitted herself well. If there was one very slight disappointment it was in the Jonathan of Andrew Staples. He has an attractive tenor voice and sang idiomatically in airs such as 'No, cruel father, no!', but didn't quite succeed, consistently, in communicating the profound conflicts of Jonathan's position, with its divided loyalties (Given that a good deal of his role was cut from Act II, it was doubtless difficult for him to develop a full sense of imagined personality and emotional life). Matthew Hargreaves and Ben Johnson made solid contributions throughout, Hargreaves singing with great authority as the ghost of Samuel in Act III, while Johnson's 'Infernal spirits, by whose pow'r' had a sufficiency of gothic menace.

Winton Dean regarded the chorus as the second most important character in Saul (after the king himself). When sung as well as they were on this occasion the choruses can be heard to do several jobs simultaneously and to do them very well. They provoke Saul to strong feeling and action (in their insistent praise of David); they draw moral lessons; they embody the wider national resonances of Saul's behaviour and much else. In the elegiac sequence which brings the whole work towards its close, and in the renewed affirmation of 'Gird on the sword, thou man of might', the Chorus did full justice to the extraordinary power of Handel's writing.

Nicholas Kraemer's direction drew from this baroque-sized version of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales - supplemented by such baroque specialists as theorbo-player Paula Chateauneuf, keyboard player Robert Court  and Frances Kelly at the baroque harp - some distinguished and idiomatic work.

The test which a performance of so well-integrated a work as Saul should pass is not that it should send us from the concert hall wondering at the brilliance of individual performers or, indeed of individual elements in the performance (soloists, choir, orchestra or whatever) but that we should leave with a renewed and refreshed sense of how remarkable a work we have just heard. I and many others left the Brangwyn Hall with precisely that awareness.

Glyn Pursglove


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