Back Bay Chorale wraps season with a worthy “Saul”

May 11, 2014 at 1:45 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

“Saul and David” by Rembrandt van Rijn, c.1630.

Handel’s music seems to be the closer of choice for a number of ensembles this year. Saturday night at Sanders Theatre, the Back Bay Chorale concluded its fortieth anniversary season with a grand performance of the composer’s dramatic oratorio, Saul.

There may be no more tragically flawed character in Handel’s oratorios than the Israelite king. Driven mad by jealousy over the triumphs of young David, Saul does all he can to hold onto his kingdom. But when schemes to kill the newcomer fail, he turns to the outlawed practice of witchcraft in an attempt to reverse his fate. “If Heaven denies me aid, seek it from hell,” he intones.

Yet the story of David’s virtue plays a central role in Charles Jennens’ libretto for the oratorio. The young Israelite’s triumph over Goliath and the Philistines makes him a celebrity in Saul’s kingdom. The king’s youngest daughter, Michal, falls in love with David at first sight. But Princess Merab, her older sister, abhors the youth because of his low birth. Jonathan, Saul’s son, is torn between his newfound friendship for David and his father’s repeated orders to destroy the young champion. David rises above it all. After a battle with the Philistines leaves Saul and Jonathan dead, he violently punishes those who have killed the Lord’s anointed, and the pieces are set for his own ascendancy to the throne.

Though the vocal writing is less florid than in Handel’s later oratorios, Saul nonetheless offers lyrical melodies and gently sprinkled chromatic shading. The work, however, is most striking for its showpiece of orchestration, making use of three trombones, organ, and carillon (recreated with glockenspiel and chimes in Saturday night’s performance)

With deliberate gestures, conductor Scott Allen Jarrett led the Back Bay Chorale and orchestra in a vibrant performance. He especially brought out the fine details of this score, sculpting a smooth phrase here and punching out a deliberate forte there.

Baritone Sumner Thompson, as Saul, possessed a clear voice rather than a weighty one, but he mined the palpable anger from the role. His crystalline diction in the Act 1 air “With rage I shall burst his praises to hear!” captured fully the beginning of the king’s incurable madness.

In the role of David, countertenor Douglas Dodson seemed most at home in his middle and lower registers. He sang a plush “O Lord, whose mercies numberless,” as his character tries desperately to ease Saul’s madness through music. Dodson’s upper range smoothed out as the evening progressed, but he still sounded at his best in the supple, mid-range phrases in the laments for Saul and Jonathan at the end of Act 3.

Amanda Forsythe’s silvery and athletic soprano is a joy to listen to in any role. As Michal she performed gracefully, singing the fiery melismas that make up her arias with aplomb. She and Dodson blended sumptuously for their duet in Act 2.

For reasons unknown, Nicholas Phan had to pull out of Saturday’s performance. In his place tenor Matthew Anderson brought bell-toned sound and warm presence to the role of Jonathan.

The friendship between David and Jonathan, one of the most celebrated same-sex relationships in history, posed a problem for eighteenth-century writers. Biblical commentators have insisted that the relationship was platonic. Yet Jennens stuck to biblical sources for the libretto, and Jonathan’s line “Of thee, oh darling of my soul” and David’s revealing verse “Great was the pleasure I enjoy’d in thee/ And more than woman’s love thy wondrous love to me!” lead unmistakably to an alternative interpretation. Anderson, with honeyed tone, captured effectively Jonathan’s feelings for David.

As the older sister Merab, soprano Jacquelyn Stucker sang with a robust tone well suited to the pretentious character. With plump, full-throated voice in the Act 1 aria “My soul rejects the thought with scorn,” she captured Merab’s contempt when it is learned that Saul promised her hand in marriage to the young Israelite.

In his brief role as the Witch of Endor, tenor Patrick T. Waters sang with stately power as his character resurrected the ghost of Samuel. From the balcony, Irvin Heifetz, in the role of the unhappy ghost, delivered his lines with earthy force.

The Back Bay Chorale sang fluently and with a rich ensemble blend in the work’s many choruses, though, at times, one wanted clearer diction.

The orchestra played with crispness and rhythmic vitality in the oratorio’s overture and numerous sinfonias. Kudos to the brasses, who gave the concluding “Gird on thy sword, thou man of might” a glorious sound.

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