Saul Oratorio in three parts
Saul Neal Davies
David Andreas Scholl
Jonathan Mark Padmore
Merab Susan Gritton
Michal Deborah York
High Priest / Witch of Endor Paul Agnew
Ghost of Samuel Jonathan Lemalu
Gabrieli Consort and Players
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 24 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
An almost-full Royal Albert Hall attended Paul McCreesh’s peerless performance of Saul, Handel’s first great success in English oratorio (following Deborah and Athalia), with hushed silence and rapt concentration, with not even as much as a mobile phone ringing to spoil the event.The resultant acclamatory tumult was fully deserved, even though on a Sunday night a 10.40 finish was probably pushing it for a sizeable portion of the audience.
The wonder of many wonders was that Paul McCreesh conducted the whole work from memory.This was the second time in less than ten months London has seen McCreesh’s Saul.He had brought virtually the same cast (excepting Nancy Argenta for Deborah York) to the Barbican last October, at the same time a recording was made for DG.It was a trick lost, surely, that the CDs weren’t available in time for this performance – I suspect many of the 5000-plus audience would have immediately bought a copy.
Undeniably fine though that Barbican performance was, there was something very special about this Prom.Many of the audience may have come on the strength of countertenor Andreas Scholl. He was in thrilling form, a voice so pure matched by stunning diction and healthy characterisation (some words he positively spat, throwing pitch to the wind, but firmly in character). The other soloists equalled Scholl.Mark Padmore was an earnest Jonathan, Deborah York a heartfelt Michal, in love with David and eventually allowed to marry him after Saul’s volt-face from envious dismissal of David.Susan Gritton, haughty as Michal’s elder sister Merab and looking down her nose at the initial prospect of being given lowly David as a husband only because he had defeated the giant Goliath, was a nice sisterly foil.
Neal Davies fleshed out the titular anti-hero with his usual panache.Luxury casting was ensured with Paul Agnew taking two small roles, the High Priest and the Witch of Endor, while bass-of-the-moment Jonathan Lemalu played his first ghost of the weekend (the second being in The Trojans), that of Samuel (conjured up by the Witch of Endor to tell Saul his tragic fate: dying with his son Jonathan in battle against the Philistines).
Other parts – including Abner and Doeg – were taken by regrettably uncredited singers from the Gabrieli Consort, a shame particularly with reference to the relatively large part of ’Soprano 3’ who begins and ends the work (bar the opening and closing choruses).It is worth noting here that stage movements were seamlessly achieved, although the fact that the organist and one of the harpsichordists needed to change places twice, clambering over the risers of the stage, looking rather bizarre, given that the instruments were rather far apart, the organ high in the middle, behind the wind, cellos and brass just in front of the chorus, the harpsichord in question down with the strings.Timothy Roberts took the important solo organ parts in the Overture and the ’Symphony’ in Part Two, and also the lion’s share of the continuo part.
The stage layout was lavish.Eight oboes and four bassoons were arrayed in a line in front of the chorus and organ, with cellos and brass in front of them.Strings, with antiphonal violins, and three basses to the right with the principal harpsichord, surrounded McCreesh, a second harpsichord on the left.In Part One the first harpsichord also doubled on carillon, and the harp (played standing up) represented David on his lyre.All in all, the Gabrieli Consort and Players made a grand noise; far exceeding that of the amassed Academy of Ancient Music, English Consort and Royal Academy players for Corelli and Handel in Prom 6.
Harp and carillon dispensed with, Part Two opens with the kernel of the tale: Saul’s envy.Handel’s Saul is akin to Shakespeare’s Othello with the emotion of jealousy becoming a character in its own right.Here Saul’s envy of David’s prowess in killing Goliath, and especially of the public adulation accorded the lowly born youngster, leads him twice to seek David’s death.The first time it is Saul’s son Jonathan who – now great friends with David – persuades his father to relent.At first Saul’s offer of his younger daughter Michal is seen as genuine feeling towards David, but bitterness still rankles in Saul’s breast, and he admits that getting David to lead the army against the Philistines will see him killed. As it happens, it is Saul with Jonathan who are killed in battle – just as the ghost of Samuel prophesied – and David is left to become leader of the Israelites.
Handel, and his librettist Charles Jennens (later to provide the words for Messiah), produced an extraordinary arch from jubilant beginning, welcoming David back from the killing of Goliath, to a paean to David’s future, tempered by the tragedy of Saul and Jonathan’s death.It was a further plus-point in McCreesh’s performance that it mined the emotional depths of Handel’s design, often glossed over.Certainly Handel’s operatic fingerprints are still to the fore, not surprisingly as that was still his ambition even in the face of financial difficulties which meant that at least two recent operas (Acis & Galatea and Esther) had been performed in as concerts.
That very fact led directly to the development of the oratorio, which would characterise the next twenty years of Handel’s career. Saul is one of the greatest, and here it made a triumphant Proms debut (only Part Three had been heard before).It follows in a long line of great Handel Proms performances. One fervently hopes that McCreesh and his singers and players will return for many more.