Saturday, 25 July 2015

He's not the messiah, he's a very silly director (Glyndebourne/Saul)

Handel, Saul (Ivor Bolton cond. OAE, Glyndebourne Opera)
If you have seen reviews of Barrie Kosky's new production of Saul, you would be forgiven for thinking he is the messiah. (For a flavour click here - via slippedisc).You get a good measure from him by the fact he swaggered around opening night in blue trousers, a country jacket and trainers. What a maverick! How original! Or perhaps just how disrespectful to the first-rate performers and the festival.
Saul, Glyndebourne Festival 2015. Christopher Purves (Saul). Photographer Bill Cooper.
Saul, Glyndebourne Festival 2015. Part I scene. Photographer Bill Cooper.
Musically, the production is sans raproche. Iestyn Davies is at the top of his game, and could be heard perfectly at the very back row. It is, of course, a small enough house for that not to matter. His singing was so fine, so rounded, so utterly perfect that it had to bring a tear or two. I often feel that counter-tenors might best be left in recital -but this was very special.
There were some wonderful moments in it. The opening tableau which set up the hollowness of the baroque state, and indeed the arc by which it would collapse was terrific.
 As madness sets in, the banquet table is stripped. Then eventually there is a battle field, and finally tabula rasa. 
Saul, Glyndebourne Festival 2015. Christopher Purves (Saul). Photographer Bill Cooper.
Saul, Glyndebourne Festival 2015. Jonathan (Paul Appleby) and Saul (Christopher Purves).Photographer Bill Cooper.
 Cranking-up the pressure after the long interval is always crucial. Here it was achieved - to a gasp and applause - of a stage filled with candles and an organ solo performed as a the instrument rotated on a rising and lowering platform.
Saul, Glyndebourne Festival 2015. Christopher Purves (Saul). Photographer Bill Cooper. After a technical hitch, Lucy Crowe delivered Author of Peace  - possibly my favourite Handel aria - flawlessly. Amongst the candles. With the OAE as band, it was an utterly sublime moment, and worth the admission for this alone.
Yet I must temper my enthusiasm. So what was wrong with it?
1. Singing at an angle (the rubberised soil will remind people not only of Lucretia but also Guillaume Tell at Covent Garden),  is difficult.
2. The Chorus were being forced to move around too much. As a result of (1) and (2) they sounded rather strained, especially at the start.
3. The choreography also suffered due to the angle  - this meant that they were never in time or unison. It felt under-rehearsed and - dare I say - sloppy.
Saul, Glyndebourne Festival 2015. Christopher Purves (Saul). Photographer Bill Cooper.
Saul, Glyndebourne Festival 2015. Dancers and Glyndebourne Chorus. Photographer Bill Cooper.

4. Saul suckling the Witch of Endor.  Perfectly ludicrous.
5. The lazy, wrong assumption that as Handel is boring something has to happen on stage at all times to hold the audience's interest. Moreover, because so much is going on, it picks away at the coherence of the work as a whole.
6.  The possibly gratuitous kiss between Jonathan and David.

Perhaps the deep problem is that this is an oratorio, not an opera. Does it really need to be staged? Or rather what does it gain? Not all that much may be the answer. Why would you stage it? To let the Chorus shine was the answer. Well sticking them at an angle and having them run around is a jolly silly way to go about it.

Overall: Kosky is not the messiah - he's a very silly director. I am not throwing out the production altogether, but it does need a heavy edit. The Chorus must be allowed to shine.

At the festival until 29th August; with new cast on tour 24 October - 27 November.

Images from a larger gallery here.

Cast and creative team

Saul Christopher Purves
David Iestyn Davies
Merab Lucy Crowe
Michal Sophie Bevan
Jonathan Paul Appleby
High Priest Benjamin Hulett
Witch of Endor John Graham-Hall
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
The Glyndebourne Chorus
Conductor Ivor Bolton
Director Barrie Kosky
Designer Katrin Lea Tag
Choreographer Otto Pichler
Lighting Designer Joachim Klein
Assistant to the Choreographer Silvano Marraffa

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