H&H brings verve and expressive depth to Handel’s “Saul”
Nothing much “happens” in Handel’s biblical oratorio Saul.
Not much happens in an episode of Dallas, either. But try not to watch, as the richest, most powerful, most dysfunctional family in the land is swept up in turbulent emotions and dastardly scheming.
In those terms, Saul has it all, as demonstrated Friday night in Symphony Hall by the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra and chorus, with a cast of able singers representing the choleric patriarch, the squabbling siblings, and the handsome, gifted interloper who throws everything into turmoil.
And of course, Saul’s Old Testament drama also has something no TV series does: the endlessly imaginative, psychologically probing, richly scored music of G.F. Handel, vividly realized Friday night under the vigorous direction of the Society’s artistic director, Harry Christophers.
Friday’s performance of Saul was the first ever in the 200-year-plus history of the Handel and Haydn Society, other than two brief excerpts from the oratorio performed during Handel bicentennial celebrations in 1885.
Among Handel’s accomplishments in this score was to finesse the doggerel verse of Charles Jennens–later, incredibly, the librettist of Messiah–clothing the poet’s pedestrian lines in a wonderful variety of shifting harmonies and phrases, which singers and players alike did full justice to on Friday night.
Great art thrives on restrictions, and Handel’s oratorios, devised as a way to put musical drama on the London stage during a ban on operas, are a classic case. The instrumental interludes he called “symphonies” mark, in the mind’s eye, scene changes and pregnant pauses in the action. On Friday, Christophers and the orchestra projected these moments with verve, from brisk and upbeat to droopy and mournful.
The orchestra also shone in the work’s three-part overture, the last of which was a mini-concerto for organ, originally a star turn for the composer himself. On Friday, organist Ian Watson kept Handel’s brilliant keyboard figurations bubbling in a lively dialogue with his fellow players.
Although it might be an exaggeration to call the performance semi-staged, it wasn’t a purely stand-and-sing affair either. The soloists awaited their turns in chairs stage left and stage right, and rose to confront each other, in character, in the space in front of the orchestra.
The cast didn’t seem to be of one mind about how much of an operatic gloss to put on the performance. As the title character, bass-baritone Jonathan Best roared out his soul-devouring jealousy of the victorious young warrior David, but projected little of the character’s eagerness to plot against his rival, or his emotions of shame and fear.
In contrast, soprano Elizabeth Atherton as Saul’s eldest daughter Merab managed amusingly to drip scorn for the low-born David while also negotiating fiercely difficult coloratura leaps and scales. The rather hard timbre of her voice was right in character, and softened some along with Merab’s attitude later in the drama.
As her siblings Jonathan and Michal, tenor Robert Murray and soprano Joélle Harvey gave plainer performances, perhaps reflecting their characters: the duty-driven Jonathan as the straight-arrow brother (a constant from ancient Israel to Dallas) and Michal as the lovestruck little sister.
Vocally, Murray and Harvey sounded clear and appealing, Harvey showing particular flair for the pianissimo high note and delicate ornamentation.
But the vocal phenomenon of the evening was surely countertenor Iestyn Davies as David. Handel has the singer begin his first air (aria), “O King, your favors with delight,” with a crescendo on the single syllable “O,” and Davies’s note seemed to start somewhere in West Newton and swell effortlessly to fill the large hall.
It was the calling card for a remarkable performance, in which Davies’s mostly nonvibrato tone could be a forte trumpet one moment, and a sensitive turn of phrase in pianissimo the next.
Perhaps a modern unfamiliarity with the countertenor voice might exaggerate the otherworldliness of it all, but the sense of David as the uncannily gifted visitor was certainly heightened by Davies’s vocal virtuosity.
No musical drama featuring the biblical musician-king would be complete without a harp, and Frances Kelly had the Symphony Hall audience leaning forward to hear her triple-strung Baroque harp in an exquisite, very soft solo meant to soothe Saul’s jealous fury. (It didn’t work.)
Kelly also played along with the able continuo section—including cellist Guy Fishman, organist Justin Blackwell, harpsichordist Ian Watson, and Paula Chateauneuf playing the long-necked archlute—and wrote an informative sidebar for the printed program about the triple harp, a “well-tempered” instrument whose three rows of strings make all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale available without pedals, enabling the kind of far-out modulations Handel favored for dramatic purposes.
In a departure from what would have been allowed in London in 1739, Friday’s performance briefly turned into a biblical epic with dancing girls, as members of the Young Women’s Chamber Choir from Handel and Haydn’s education program came down the aisles twirling streamers and singing Saul’s and David’s praises along with the onstage chorus.
An entirely authorized effect, during this same victory celebration, was the jingling of a carillon in the orchestra. The baroque instrument, operated by a keyboard and specified by Handel in the score, gave off a flurry of glockenspiel-like tones under organist Blackwell’s nimble fingers.
Under Christophers’s eager direction—and with concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky seated on a stool higher than her colleagues, in a secondary leadership role—the orchestra played with as much commitment and dramatic flair when backing singers as in its own numbers.
The 30-voice chorus was a model of accurate intonation, clear diction, and artful characterization, easily projecting Handel’s ever-changing styles of fugue and counterpoint—splendid and orderly at moments of celebration, ragged and off kilter in times of confusion or anxiety.
Four singers stepped out of the chorus to sing and act convincingly in the briefer roles: baritone Bradford Gleim hulking and menacing as Doeg, sent by Saul to arrest David; tenor Stefan Reed stretchingly double-cast as both the creepy Witch of Endor and the paternal High Priest; baritone Woodrow Bynum as the ghost of the prophet Samuel, forcefully pronouncing Saul’s doom from on high at the back of the stage; and tenor Jonas Budris playing the enemy Amalekite soldier as a decent fellow, returning the slain Saul’s personal effects to his grieving family.
Grieving is in fact the main business of the third and final act, with choruses and an air for each surviving character lamenting the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in battle. Despite the high quality of this music—the sepulchral Dead March, with its muffled drums and grave trombones, was one of the excerpts played at the bicentennial concert in 1885—the act’s gloomy atmosphere, barely dispelled by an upbeat final chorus welcoming David as king, may help account for the rarity of performances of Saul compared to Handel’s other oratorios.
This undeserved neglect of a good work by a great composer was rectified, at least in part, by Friday’s imaginative and utterly committed performance.
Saul will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday. handelandhaydn.org; 617-266-3605.
Posted in Performances