Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Seriously satisfying Saul (O’Donnell/St James Baroque & BBC Singers)

Handel, Saul (James O’Donnell cond. St James Baroque and BBC Singers)
At the Milton Concert Hall on Friday night (15th April), a desert-island cast was assembled with the BBC singers and St James Baroque to do serious justice to Handel’s greatest oratorio: Saul. My dream cast would start with Iestyn Davies, to whom we will come last. Add to this Elizabeth Atherton (previously: Cure/Corridor) providing the most exquisitely painful, heartfelt Merab. David Soar had a truly formidable presence on stage: with almost rumbling in the lowest notes, goose bumps were guaranteed. Fflur Wyn as Michal was very fine (previously: Woodbird ON Ring, Ludus Baroque). Robert Murray as Jonathan brought depth and humanity to the role – this was a real revelation. The thing about Iestyn Davies, is that each time I am about to hear him sing I worry. I worry that he can’t possibly be as good as I remembered. Nobody can approach those high notes with such ease, surely; nobody can produce long honeyed lines. Yet his return as David (previously for Glyndebourne), was stunning.  
The King's Theatre in the Haymarket where Saul was originally performed. Handel played his new organ built at a cost of £500 of his own money. Image Wikipedia
The BBC Singers – very smartly suited by (presumably) the BBC costumes department – were produced sounds which were just as sharp and elegant. By the second act their voices glowed and they produced some extremely special sounds.
The period forces of St James’ Baroque were seriously satisfying, but I felt that the tempi were just a smidge on the fast side. This was telling in some of the deeply thrilling moments. For example the singularly breath-taking aria (David), ‘O lord whose mercies numberless’, and the death march, were just slightly too fast. Here James O’Donnell just moved things along a little too quickly. Solos from Frances Kelley (Harp) and Stephen Farr (Organ) were memorable.
Overall: if Handel’s music makes you glad to be alive, a cast like this makes it hard to believe that you really are.
On radio 3 Bank Holiday Monday 30th May.

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