It is not often that critics get the chance to review a concert or production for a second time, but Glyndebourne on Tour permits me exactly that indulgence, with the opportunity to reflect upon Barrie Kosky’s direction of Handel’s Saul, first shown at the company’s home in Sussex earlier this summer, albeit with different performers. For my part I second Peter Reed’s views on, and description of, the original showing, and add a few further observations here, summing them up to remark that the production stands up to further scrutiny as a memorable, nuanced, and sensitive examination of Saul’s descent into madness, and the relationship between him, his son Jonathan, and David.
All the strands in Kosky’s vision are tightly and brilliantly woven together. For all that Saul becomes a tyrannical, ostracised figure, so too does David largely remain on the margins despite the Israelites’ lionisation of him. Initially David appears as a wild, outcast figure – more beast than man, scarred after his struggle with Goliath, and the Israelites approach him with caution and fear. As a wounded, mistrusted character, a connection is seemingly made between this future King of the Jews, and the tortured Christ at his trial and crucifixion, reminding us that Handel’s oratorios originally served as edifying diversions (if not exactly entertainment) during Lent to draw out the typological portents of the Messiah in the stories of the Old Testament, a practice in which theologians have engaged throughout Christian history.
Outwardly, Saul’s mistrust of David stems from the popularity he comes to inspire in the Israelites, and the threat Saul perceives to his throne. This production also makes explicitly sexual the love between Jonathan and David which was “wonderful, passing the love of women” as the Bible puts it. This gay relationship perhaps serves, therefore, as a personal cause for putting Saul at odds with David. Certainly it upsets the dynamic among Jonathan and his sisters, Merab and Michal, as they fight for David’s attentions, and points up the women’s failure to understand the bond of male camaraderie between the two young men; David’s eventual espousal to Michal is nothing but a perfunctory engagement of convenience. The drama is, then, not only the tragedy of Saul’s decline and death, but the tragedy of David’s bereavement from his beloved Jonathan when the latter is also slain in battle. After that David appears to assume the role of king reluctantly.
Visually the production is lavish – particularly in its first half with an abundant banquet presented. For me that – and the choreography of frequent dancing, miming, and whooping of the chorus members – just crossed the line into a distracting revelling in luxury for its own vulgar sake, though that is a subjective view and my impression of gaudiness is as much another person’s perception of superb stagecraft. And I certainly acknowledge that such opulence receives its warrant from the sensuousness of the text (which often refers to David’s youthful beauty, and implies what should be the majesty of kingship, for example) and the score (with its elaborate orchestration using strings and brass, as well as a harp, organ, timpani, and carillon, and featuring a number of contrapuntal choruses, outdoing virtually everything else Handel had previously written for the stage, except perhaps Deborah).
Laurence Cummings directed a musical performance commensurate with that brilliance, but in no way cloying or becoming bogged down with detail or weight. Indeed his typically lively account of the Overture might even be thought to undermine what should perhaps be a musical evocation of regal dignity, unless this is to be taken as an ironic foreshadowing of what is to come. The choruses were executed with superb clarity and dramatic conviction, which was all the more notable on account of the considerable number of chorus members, and the choreography they had to perform simultaneously.
In characterising Saul’s mental instability, Henry Waddington proved to be a consummate musical actor, even perhaps to the extent that his singing sometimes became slightly approximate (maybe inevitably) as a result of his close attention to charting the disturbing course of that uncontrollable madness.
Christopher Ainslie was excellently cast as David. His voice has an unstrained purity in the higher register, making him sound close to a male soprano at times, appropriately for the figure variously described as youth, boy or stripling. Ainslie’s focused and quietly intense rendition of ‘O Lord, who merciless numberless’ was haunting. He was met with a corresponding earnestness and charm in the account of Jonathan by Benjamin Hulett.
Anna Devin and Sarah Tynan made for a naively excitable Michal and haughty Merab respectively. The dramatic coup of merging four parts to become a sort of jester figure (the Fool to the Saul’s Lear as it were) is highly effective. There is a sort of camp hideousness to the part which reminds of the absurd painted clown-like figure whom Aschenbach encounters on arriving at the Lagoon in Death in Venice, and just as Saul represents a warped version of what a monarch should be, so this hybrid part seems to serve as a useful, perverted foil to the sincere love between David and Jonathan. Stuart Jackson’s necessarily mannered singing led to an expressive rendition, where apparent musical imperfections (not otherwise characteristic of his ability) were presumably deliberate. Colin Judson’s curdled realisation of the Witch of Endor captured the otherworldliness of this role.
All the elements of music and drama come together for a highly stimulating production which is worth catching.