by Jennifer Bryce
Saul, by G.F. Handel, directed by Barrie Kosky, a Glyndebourne Festival Opera Production was performed at the Adelaide Festival Theatre as a part of the 2017 Adelaide Festival.
G.F. Handel composed many operas as well as oratorios. Saul was composed as an oratorio at a time when opera was a little out of favour in London. An oratorio is a large-scale, usually narrative musical work for orchestra and voices, typically on a sacred theme, performed without costume, scenery, or action. Handel’s oratorio of Saul was first performed in 1739. It is a dramatic telling of the consequences of David’s victory over Goliath. Saul, king of Israel, is jealous of David’s success and plots to have him killed but Saul, unhinged by jealousy, and his sons are killed in battle and David ends up as a popular leader of the Israelites. Handel’s work is normally sung in concert style with choir, orchestra and soloists. In Handel’s time it was conducted from the harpsichord. This drama has been taken by Barrie Kosky and retold as an opera – the music and words seem to be unchanged, but the spectacle is magnificent. Pretty much the first thing we see on stage is the severed head of Goliath, then the curtain swings open to a vibrant banquet that for some reason reminded me of a Rubens painting – although the participants were clothed – the choir, actually on the tables that are overflowing with flowers, food (venison and swans) and the people themselves.
No staid chorus here, the colourfully dressed singers jumped off the tables and danced. The story has what are perhaps usual ingredients: victory, jealousy, triumph and happy young lovers (David ends up with Saul’s daughter). The music was interpreted in a light buoyant style using a full orchestra, but with none of the heavy stodginess that is sometimes the fate of baroque performance. As in Handel’s day, the conductor led from a claviorganum – a replica of an instrument used at the time. In the second part this instrument rose from centre stage, briefly reminiscent of old theatre organs. There were stark contrasts enhanced by the costume and scenery which, when jubilant was strikingly bright and colourful and when troubled, was stark black and white. The second part began stunningly with a stage covered by lit candles – for a while that was all you could see.
The leading men stood out in their black present-day style suits. When mad, Saul, who suckled the sagging breasts of a hermaphroditic witch to evoke the ghost of Samuel, was totally white. In the final scenes everyone was dressed in black and white.
One is tempted to say that in its presentation as an opera Saul came alive. But of course a traditionalist would say that the great music of Handel is alive anyway and doesn’t need enhancing. The music was totally respected. The Biblical story was interpreted in a way that would not be condoned by puritans. While, on the one hand, this production was completely faithful to the original, I nevertheless came away feeling that I had had a new, stupendous Felliniesque experience.