BWW Review: ADELAIDE FESTIVAL 2017: SAUL at Adelaide Festival Theatre

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Friday 3rd March 2017

The often controversial Barrie Kosky directed this production of George Frideric Handel's 1738 opera, Saul (HWV53), which had its premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2015, for the Adelaide Festival. More correctly, it is a dramatic oratorio in three acts, this production, however, being played with only one interval. It is a loose adaptation of the First Book of Samuel, chapters 16-31, plus additional material from Abraham Cowley's epic poem, Davideis, and begins with the chorus of Israelites celebrating David's, killing of the Philistine giant, Goliath.

First, though, is one of the longest overtures that you are likely to hear, so long that it has four movements, the third featuring an organ solo. This allows us to hear, once more, what a magnificent organisation we have in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Their playing was impeccable and they had the advantage of performing under the Baroque music specialist, Dr. Erin Helyard, who is here conducting the production.

Having admired our orchestra we are then reminded that the State Opera Chorus is an exceptional group as well when they launch into the celebratory, How excellent Thy name, O Lord. This work gives the Chorus ample opportunities to appear on stage and their numerous performances are a vital part of the production. Handel wrote some marvellous vocal harmonies for this piece that the Chorus sing them with great clarity.

Saul, the first King of Israel, is initially thrilled with David and offers him the hand of his eldest daughter, Merab. Soon after, he hears the people expressing their admiration of David and he becomes jealous to the point of ordering his son, Jonathon, to murder David. Merab is furious with her father for offering her to David who is socially far below her, but her sister, Michal, has fallen for David and is distraught that he is to wed her sister. Jonathon, too, has become close friends and an admirer of David and tries to dissuade Saul from hating him. Eventually, Saul rescinds his offer of Merab and offers Michal in her place, pleasing everybody, and he tells Jonathon that he has realised that he should not hate David, but it is all for show. His machinations, though, only lead to his tragic death and that of Jonathon, David succeeding to the throne.

Bass-baritone, Christopher Purves, appeared as Saul in the Glyndebourne Festival production and is in Adelaide to repeat his performance, and what a performance he gives. He is dark, brooding, subject to fits of violence, fury, and madness, and wanders the stage plotting, watching, and fuming. His rich and powerful voice is ideally suited to the role

As Saul's hero, and then his perceived enemy, David, is the American counter-tenor, Christopher Lowrey. His purity of tone is captivating and there is a sense of simplicity, almost innocence to his portrayal of David. The audience made it clear that he would be welcome back anytime.

Expatriate Australian tenor, Adrian Strooper, sings the role of Saul's son, Jonathon, lover and defender of David. There is great compassion in his performance, married to gentleness in his demeanour and corresponding warmth in his singing.

As Saul's daughters, Merab and Michal, are British soprano, Mary Bevan, and Australian Taryn Fiebig. Two most beautiful voices coupled with strong characterisations reveal the very different characters of the sisters. From their very fine and sensitive individual performances, we discover much about the relationship of the sisters through a natural expose.

The High Priest is sung by Stuart Jackson, who looks more like the Pagan god of the Romans, Bacchus, in command of the feasting and revelries, than a servant of the one true god. His presence is strongly felt even when quietly observing proceedings, but when he sings he commands the stage.

The short but unforgettable appearance of the Witch of Endor is due to the excellent embodiment of the character by Australian, Kanen Breen. His head appears between the legs of the seated Saul, rising from the ground like Erda, the earth mother/goddess in Wagner's Ring Cycle, providing succour and enabling Saul to channel the spirit of Solomon.

It doesn't end there, though. The whole production is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, with costume and set design by Katrin Lea Tag, lighting design by Joachim Klein, and choreography by Otto Pichler combining to take the production far from its origin as an oratorio.

Kosky has added many quirky touches to the work, reading between the lines of the original libretto, highlighting the internal dialogues of the characters and emphasising their complex web of relationships and allegiances. After the final curtain the audience took to their feet in a standing ovation and continued standing, applauding continuously and cheering frequently through many rounds of bows, brought to an end only by dropping the curtain and refusing to raise it again. Assuredly, all involved would have been as thrilled with the response as the audience was with the performance.

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From This Author Barry Lenny

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