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Review: Saul (Glyndebourne)

A welcome revival for Barrie Kosky's operatic version of Handel's biblical oratorio

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Iestyn Davies as David and Markus Brück as Saul in Saul (Glyndebourne)
© Bill Cooper

Barrie Kosky directs opera like his personal Ziegfeld folly, spraying the juice of showbiz over other people's weighty work. At times it's a neat fit, to wit his reclamation of Shostakovich's satire The Nose for the Royal Opera; at others, such as the same company's recent Carmen, it's just tiresome. His Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth contrived to be both at the same time. On this evidence (admittedly slender - he's directed a ton of stuff for the Komische Oper Berlin that I've missed) the Australian maverick is at his best when he can fly with fantasy rather than have to grapple with formal narrative.

That explains why Glyndebourne got the best of Kosky when it hired him in 2015 to stage Handel's oratorio Saul. He delivered a riot of razzmatazz that's so far beyond left field it's on the funny farm next door – and here it is again three years on, self-revived and firing on all cylinders.

Stirring a few newcomers in with alumni from the original and tour casts, the 2018 Saul zings and dances with joyous abandon. The company wades through designer Katrin Lea Tag's sea of chopped rubber on the bare black stage, even the sextet of movers who fling themselves around with ragdoll agility to Otto Pichler's delirious choreography, but it never seems to faze them.

Laurence Cummings and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment deliver an urgent, theatrical and only faintly reshaped account of Handel's score, with James McVinnie a whirling onstage organist in the concerto that's used to herald act two.

The Glyndebourne Chorus is on exhilarating form both in the elation-packed first half and through the dead march of post-interval gloom. As for the solo line-up, for the most part this cast is a match or better for its predecessors. Tenor Allan Clayton is a classy new recruit as Saul's son Jonathan, his passionate devotion to the Goliath-conquering David scorned by Karina Gauvin's jealous Merab ("What abject thoughts a prince can have!"). Anna Devin sings with limpid attack as the loving Michal and tenor Stuart Jackson returns to vivid effect in the saint-'n'-sinister composite of a high priest/narrator.

It's a great shame that Markus Brück misses the tragedy in Saul himself. The German baritone's incarnation of a role played so movingly by Christopher Purves and Henry Waddington last time conveys little beyond base-level anger as Kosky's complex depiction of a man in mental collapse is skated over. Brück sings well enough but offers little by way of textual insight. That skill is left to Iestyn Davies as David, the evening's dominant role and one the countertenor sings with astonishing power as he tracks his rise from diffident youth to (spoiler alert) king.

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