Everything you need to know about Handel's Saul, which is available to watch online for free as part of Glyndebourne Open House from Friday 16 December.
In this instalment of our Introducing… series, we explore Barrie Kosky’s sensational 2015 staging of this remarkable oratorio that marries spectacle and psychology.
The free stream will be available to watch until 5.00pm on Friday 6 January 2023.
A brief introduction
Composed in 1738 as Handel was recovering from the stroke that many thought would end his career, Saul is an unflinching portrait of mental collapse and human weakness. At its heart is the Lear-like figure of King Saul – one of the composer’s most moving and vividly drawn characters.
When the story begins, the Israelite warrior David has vanquished the Philistine giant Goliath. But while the Israelite people celebrate David’s victory, King Saul is filled with jealousy. Jealousy soon curdles into anger, and anger into a violent madness, and the increasingly unstable King forces his children to choose between loyalty to their father and their love for David. Breaking every moral and man-made law, Saul brings both his nation and family to a terrible, destructive crisis.
The Israelite people speak in some of Handel’s most thrilling and virtuosic choruses, and the scope and pathos of this tragedy is reflected in the famous ‘Dead March‘. Richly and unusually orchestrated, Saul is a musical drama of rare intensity.
Why not to miss it
Peter Sellars’ groundbreaking Theodora in 1996 established Glyndebourne as a pioneer in the staging of Handel’s oratorios – compositions that, because of their religious subject matter, were originally intended to be performed in concert form only. Barrie Kosky’s extraordinary, award-winning production of Saul continues this tradition. Bursting with energy and sensation, Kosky’s Saul combines exhilarating contemporary choreography with lavish period costumes in a stylish fusion of old and new that creates some of the season’s most striking visuals.
Drama is absolutely at the heart of a staging that takes one of Handel’s most vivid scores and amplifies it, drawing out both the darkness and the blazing musical light in this tale of one man’s mental collapse, and the rise of a new era and a new nation. Here’s a taste of this spectacular staging – the oratorio’s opening chorus ‘How Excellent Thy Name O Lord’, in which the Israelites celebrate David’s victory over the giant Goliath.
Cast and creative team
Ivor Bolton leads the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with a cast of distinguished Handelians and Glyndebourne favourites including the commanding Christopher Purves in the title role, the virtuosic Iestyn Davies as David plus acclaimed soprano Lucy Crowe, as well as the elegant American tenor Paul Appleby, making his UK debut.
Things to look out for
Handel’s instrumentation is extraordinarily varied in this piece. The innovative introduction of trombones and military drums for battle and ceremonial music together with prominent solos for organ, harp and an exotic carillon show Handel seizing the moment to establish himself as a master of the form. The score calls for kettle drums so large that Handel had to borrow them from the Tower of London as no others existed that were large enough.
The production features some spectacular visual set pieces, from the incredibly choreographed group dance routines to a breathtaking on-stage organ solo performed amidst a host of candles.
Image credits: Saul, Festival 2015, photos by Bill Cooper