Glyndebourne: Saul

Handel: Saul
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Laurence Cummings
Glyndebourne Festival Opera. 22 July 2018

Glyndebourne’s new production of Handel’s Saul was one of the highlights of the 2015 season, gaining rave reviews from, amongst others, me – see here, which also gives more background to the oratorio and the production. Glyndebourne has a long tradition of staging Handel oratorios, and I have no problem at all with that, subject to my normal reservations about what some some opera directors get up to with their productions. This was not entirely devoid of some concern on those grounds, but the sheer spectacle of Barrie Kosky’s direction and the musical integrity of Ivor Bolton’s direction allayed most of my concerns. The same applies to this revival, at least musically, on this occasion conducted by the equally distinguished Laurence Cummings, directing the same Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Glyndebourne’s resident period instrument orchestra.

On my return from this performance, I checked my earlier review and the programme to see if there was a revival director. But no, it was Barrie Kosky returning to direct his own revival. But it seemed very different from the original of three years ago. One was the depiction of Saul, which in the revival wallowed in his tragic mental breakdown in a way that was very different from the more sympathetic 2015 interpretation. I thought it came too close to parody and attempted humour at mental illness, which is not the direction that public taste is, fortunately, moving. Whether this was down to a change of soloist, or a change in direction of the director is not clear, but it made for uncomfortable viewing. Another aspect of the 2015 production that I specifically mentioned in 2015 what that the director “. . . downplayed one aspect of Saul that many in a typical opera audience might have appreciated – the homoerotic aspect of Jonathan and David’s relationship. Jonathan manages a rather clumsily applied kiss, but is clearly rebuffed by David who immediately turns his attention to Michel”. But on this occasion, there were several homoerotic moments, not least the lack of a rebuff from David and, later, some man-on-man rolling about on a table.

There were few soloist survivors from the 2015 production, the key one being Iestyn Davies as David, reviving his incredibally powerful interpretation, vocally and in acting terms. Vocally he outshone all the others put together. Markus Brück was the new Saul, with an inspiring if, at times, uncomfortable bit of acting and fine singing. I was less impressed with the two daughters of Saul, whose acting was fine, but whose consistent vibrato was un-stylistic and did Handel’s music no favours – both rather surprising choices for an otherwise period-inspired reading of the musical text. Allan Clayton’s Jonathan was another powerful interpretation.

As ever, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on top form, led by Kati Debretzeni, with notable performances from organist James McVinnie in the opening Sinfonia and the central organ concerto, her performed in spectacular style on a revolve in the middle of a sea, if that is the right word, of candles. The continuo group were Jonathan Manson, cello, Carina Cosgrave, bass, David Miller, theorbo and Matthew Fletcher and Laurence Cummings, harpsichord.

Further production photographs (by Bill Cooper) can be seen here.