Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Saul; Agrippina

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Saul; Agrippina

Article excerpt


Glyndebourne, in rep until 29 August


Iford Arts, until 5 August

Caius Gabriel Cibber's statues of 'Melancholy' and 'Raving Madness', their eyes staring blindly into the void, petrified in torment, once posed on top of the gate to Bedlam. In 1739, when Handel's dramatic oratorio Saul was first performed, you could pay a modest fee to pass beneath them and gawk at the living spectacles within, victims of 'arbitrary passions' including pride, lust and envy.

In Barrie Kosky's Glyndebourne staging of Saul , Cibber's archetypes are animated and given voice by Christopher Purves as the king driven mad by 'Envy! Eldest born of Hell!' Saul was the second of Handel's great studies of madness. But where Orlando (1733) proposes a cure, restoring the hero to his senses after a sequence of florid scenes of delirium, Saul ends in disgrace, defeat and death. In Acts 1 and 2, Kosky's Israelites jabber and point like Bedlam's Georgian tourists. They're half-crazed by the opulent spoils (Dutch-Flemish floral arrangements, stuffed swans and peacocks, the smooth flanks of slaughtered deer) of their victory over the Philistines and the grotesque totem of the head of Goliath (designs by Katrin Lea Tag). Powdered, painted and periwigged, clad in silks of primrose, kingfisher, duck-egg blue, salmon pink and olive, they jump and scamper and gasp and squeal.

Their High Priest (Benjamin Hulett) is a monstrous jester in a ruff. The physicality of Kosky's movement direction and Otto Pichler's punk-baroque choreography of the six dancers is startling, especially in contrast with the stillness of Saul's champion and nemesis, David (Iestyn Davies), whose coolness and poise triggers love in the hearts of Michal (Sophie Bevan) and Jonathan (Paul Appleby), and hatred in the hearts of Merab (Lucy Crowe) and Saul. Sublimely sung by Davies, David remains an ambiguous, even dangerous figure in Kosky's reading, his motives mysterious, his sexuality apparently as fluid as his voice. Throughout, Joachim Klein's lighting design plays skilfully with ideas of artifice and nature, now flat and brilliant, now soft and dewy -- contrasts mirrored in the voices, gestures and singing styles of Crowe and Hulett, and Bevan and Appleby.

There is an abundance of spectacle in the production, even an excess. In the Act 2 Symphony, a miniature organ concerto, organist James McVinnie plays on stage on a revolve that rises up from a battlefield lit by votive candles. On the first night, even the candles got a round of applause. But the gaudy grotesquerie dissolves when we are alone with Purves's Saul: stripped of his power, his clothes and his wig; muttering desperately to himself ('I'm the king! …

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