REVIEW: ‘Shocking, magnificent and moving’ Saul at Glyndebourne

Saul at Glyndebourne SUS-151026-165003001
Saul at Glyndebourne SUS-151026-165003001

From the flipperty, flirty stage antics of the Italian Renaissance in Don Pasquale it’s a quite a journey to the blood-soaked battlefields of the Old Testament.

The Glyndebourne Tour’s production of Handel’s Saul is by turns shocking, magnificent and moving. And always superlatively staged.

To reverse the usual review order, laurels must be flung around the necks of the various elements that make up the whole. Barrie Kosky’s sensational stagecraft (trust an Aussie to see a classical English oratorio in a stronger light;) the Glyndebourne Chorus (which plays a larger part in this production than many;) the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra conducted by Laurence Cummings (who also plays solo organ;) iridescent lighting, a set design which features severed human heads, a stage lit by flickering candles and the slow emergence from the mire of the Witch of Endor - head first, Saul misses no opportunity to shock and surprise.

Given the prevalence of elegant, grey heads, most first-night opera-goers will have grown up with the Biblical tale of Saul, King of the Israelites and his nemesis, David.

For the not-so-musically sophisticated among us, there was a disconnect between the muscular, half-naked warrior (South African Christopher Ainslie’s David) contemplating the head of Goliath - and the fluting clarity of his counter-tenor voice.

But that was soon forgotten as the powerful saga of jealousy, male love, battlefield fury and final desolation takes hold and refuses to let go.

Premiered in London in January, 1739 Saul strikes to the heart of a modern audience, all too familiar with Middle Eastern inter-tribal hatreds.

Saul fears David will take his crown and commands his son Jonathan to kill him. Jonathan refuses – Saul seeks the intervention of the Witch of Endor who conjures up the ghost of the prophet Samuel.

Samuel tells him Israel will be defeated by the Philistines and Saul and his sons killed, after which the kingdom will pass to David. The prophesy comes true and the Israel we still know is born.

In the meantime we are treated to the magnificent acting of Saul (Henry Waddington) whose depiction of madness is chilling; crystalline sopranos of Sarah Tynan and Anna Devin, a subtly troubled Jonathan (Benjamin Hulett) and mesmeric High Priest Stuart Jackson. Colin Judson’s Witch is gut-wrenching.

The audience gets even more value for money thanks to athletic moves by a dance troupe which blends modern street-style with classical ballet.

Add to the mix Glyndebourne’s astonishing garden still awash with colour, an excellent Prosecco from the well-staffed bar, the shop full of divine accessories (yes, reader, I bought some) and you have an evening that made the onset of the dark nights easier to bear.

Any criticisms? Of the opera no. But please Glyndebourne can you find a better route out of the car parks? Big boys (Jags, Mercs, BMWs, Rollers) are unwilling to give way to lesser vehicles and it can take a good 40 minutes to reach Ringmer!

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