Handel’s Saul (1739)

The Story

The tale is entirely biblical. In I Samuel, the story of Saul tells of the first king of Israel's relationship with his eventual successor, one which turns from admiration to envy and hatred, ultimately leading to the downfall of the eponymous monarch. Saul like David was the son of a herdsman, appointed king by the Israelites against the wishes of prophet Samuel
and his God. That’s a bad start to a reign, especially since despite a lot of slaying of Israel’s enemies he kept breaking God’s orders as conveyed by Samuel, such as to kill all the enemies’ cattle. God gave up on him even before our story starts. After our story David wages war on Israel successfully and so becomes its king.

The Music

An opera? No, it’s an oratorio. Handel turned to oratorio when Italian opera style lost support in London. (Read about the difference) A good comparison here with an account of Handel’s relations with the librettist, Jenner. The voice parts in Saul are gems of baroque. David’s role offers glorious arias
for top countertenors. Listen to “Oh Lord, whose mercies numberless” from Hungarian countertenor Gábor Birta, Paul Esswood, and Andreas Scholl. But the chorus towers throughout Saul. Hear it in debate with Saul. And of course everyone who’s ever been to a state funeral knows the Dead March. It must be the most travelled of Handel’s pieces. Compare Stokowski’s orchestration with this simple presentation. It’s the funeral anthem for Saul and Jonathan.

Our Production

We are watching Barrie Kosky’s famous production for Glyndebourne - “‘What do you get when you trust an Australian maverick with the sacred solemnities of Handel's oratorio? A knockout.” (Telegraph). It played last week at the Adelaide Festival.  For a wonderful insight go to the images here. “Kosky’s baroque extravaganza could power SA’s electricity grid for a month.” Read Limelight’s splendid review.