Doubtless those at Milton Court for this performance who also saw Glyndebourne’s production of Handel’s Saul last year (which also toured) will have had that impressive realisation still imprinted on their minds. Probably it took some adjusting to hear it again in a straight concert rendering, albeit as Handel originally intended it, to get around the Bishop of London’s injunction against representing Biblical figures on the stage. Iestyn Davies even reprised the role of David with his charismatic musical presence evinced through his suavely seamless singing and directness of expression, whether in the pulsing loveliness of ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ or the more incisive passion of an urgent number such as in the duet ‘At persecution I laugh’.
James O’Donnell largely eschewed outright theatrical gesture with St James’s Baroque and the BBC Singers. Nevertheless the rendition gathered its own dramatic pace and tension from within the music. A leisurely and unpromising way with the four-movement Overture soon gave way to the drive and sweep of the choruses in the first scene, and the various interludes (with some colourful instrumental sonorities) were lively.
O’Donnell drew upon his long experience with church choirs (as music master of Westminster Cathedral and Abbey) to sculpt the Oratorio’s choruses, the BBC Singers responding with cool precision, serving to comment more disinterestedly upon events, rather than acting directly and dramatically with the narrative. The minor vocal roles were also taken by members of the Singers, though there was a nod to characterisation on the part of Edward Price and Stephen Jeffes as Abner and the Witch of Endor respectively, with the latter singing in a trembling, haggish manner (which caused intonation to become approximate).
Davies instilled drama into his realisation of David through his ability to characterise a role through intelligent musicianship rather than mannered gesture. Elizabeth Atherton sounded somewhat reedy and warbling as the haughty Merab, and her singing of the work’s first aria ‘An infant raised by the command’ – allotted by Handel only to a generic soprano part, not to Merab as such – suggested that this was not an entirely deliberate interpretation. David Soar was impressive as Saul: even whilst tracing the king’s descent into agitation and madness he remained musically authoritative and controlled. Fflur Wyn’s Michal was charming if somewhat anonymous, and Robert Murray as David’s soul-mate Jonathan was mellifluous and unforced.
Handel’s genius is such that his Oratorios certainly gain a great deal through being staged. But O’Donnell and his forces showed that, by using pure musical imagination and insight, works like Saul may still make a suggestive and potent impression in the concert hall, and words and music together can work an effect as magical as any mimed action.