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Saul (Glyndebourne - tour)

Glyndebourne's staging of Handel's oratorio earns five stars for a second time

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Benjamin Hulett as Jonathan and Henry Waddington as Saul in Saul (Glyndebourne Tour)
© Richard Hubert Smith

It seems no time since the wild delights of director Barrie Kosky's Saul opened at Glyndebourne. Indeed, three months is no time in opera terms, yet here we are again with a new cast, a different though equally distinguished music director and a marginally modified production, back for a tiny tour of just seven performances - three of them on home turf.

In Donna Stirrup's attentive revival the production retains all its exhilaration and drama. It's both a biblical tragedy of King Lear proportions and an of-today love quartet. Anna Devin and Sarah Tynan give searching accounts of Saul's daughters Michal and Merab: each sister inflects Handel's arias with hues that both define her character and give her a hinterland, yet neither soprano compromises her accustomed beauty of tone.

Christopher Ainslie is the new David, an accomplished and handsome countertenor whose appeal to all three of Saul's children is self-explanatory. Tenor Benjamin Hulett moves across from singing the hobbity High Priest in the summer and makes a strong impression as Jonathan; his previous role is now taken by Stuart Jackson, an imposing tenor who's wonderfully big of voice and every bit as unhinged in playing the oratorio-opera's master of ceremonies.

Bass-baritone Henry Waddington is the new Saul (although he played the role for three performances during August) and, tell it not in Gath, he actually improves on the great Christopher Purves. Waddington's performance as a fragile king who's beset by jealous demons is one of the year's most searing and selfless examples of operatic acting. His jealousy in the face of David's Goliath-slaying popularity is chilling; his reversion to childish dependency at the expressive breast of Colin Judson's repellent Witch of Endor unaccountably touching. You'd call it barnstorming were his interpretation not streaked through with so much subtlety, and unlike his predecessor his dramatic resonances allow for an unbroken musical line throughout. I yield to no one in my admiration of Purves, but Waddington's Saul is the most powerful performance I've seen on an operatic stage this year.

The cast and chorus of Saul (Glyndebourne Tour)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Laurence Cummings, perhaps the country's most experienced Handelian, never lets Kosky's theatricality overwhelm the music however mad it gets. For this revival there are no spotlit solo instruments or - praise be - whirling Wurlitzers: he keeps the harp solo and the organ that opens part two firmly in the pit. The Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra slips easily into historically informed practice for him and there's an effortless poise to the playing that's strikingly different from Ivor Bolton's Technicolor, though no less revelatory, summer festival interpretation.

The production's zing and freshness are intact, The Glyndebourne Chorus is its incomparable self, Otto Pichler's breathless choreography (revived by Silvano Marraffa and dancer Merry Holden) is as full-on as ever, and those myriad candles still burn bright in Katrin Lea Tag's thrilling designs. It's Saul good, man, and there are only six more chances to catch it.

There are two further performances at Glyndebourne, after which Saul tours to Canterbury, Milton Keynes, Norwich and Plymouth until 27 November.