George Frideric Handel, libretto by Charles Jennens
Glyndebourne Opera
Glyndebourne Opera, Sussex

Listing details and ticket info...

The Cast of Saul Credit: Bill Cooper
The Cast of Saul Credit: Bill Cooper
The Cast of Saul Credit: Bill Cooper

Handel’s oratorio premièred in London in 1739 in London. Barrie Kosky at Glyndebourne in 2015 made it flamboyantly theatrical and turned it into an opera. With a strong cast, and Ivor Bolton conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, it was a big success.

Saul is religious exaltation: “How Excellent Thy Name O Lord. Hallelujah!” Saul is also a psychological portrait of a mad king. The production opens with the Israelites celebrating their victory over the Philistines with a glorious Peter Greenaway Baroque-style banquet.

David is a national hero having just killed Goliath. Everybody, female and male, wants to touch and fondle him. lestyn Davies, stripped to the waist, is not Michelangelo’s God-like beautiful youth. He presents a more modest and sadder-eyed figure and, in one of the oratorio’s finest arias, he gives all the credit to God.

King Saul, envious of the adulation David is getting and fearing for his own popularity and throne, turns from admiration to hatred and wants to kill him. Christopher Purves, bald, rouge-lipped, gives a big physical performance. Mentally unstable, he staggers and crawls all over the stage, raging. He is as mad as King Lear.

Saul orders his son, Jonathan (Paul Appleby), to kill David. Jonathan says he is torn between filial duty and brotherly love; but nobody is convinced. David and Jonathan are the most famous gay couple in the Bible.

Saul also has two daughters. Lucy Crowe is Merab who refuses to marry David because he is lowly born and poor. Sophie Bevan is Michal who has a girly crush and can’t wait to be married. Benjamin Hulett is a clown. John Graham Hull is the Witch of Endor whose pendulous breasts give suck to Saul.

The cast wears gorgeously colourful 18th century costumes. The designer is Katrin Lea Tag. The chorus take a very physical part in the production and make a major contribution to its theatricality. The dancers, choreographed by Otto Pichler, camp it up. They whoop, leap, yelp and generally behave as if they were in a Broadway musical.

The final act moves to a candle-filled stage and then to a corpse-ridden stage with the dead rising to mourn the Israeli dead Saul and the chorus strip to their underwear and there is more glorious singing as they look forward to defeating the Philistines.

Glyndebourne’s Saul can be watched free online via Glyndebourne Encore.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch