wed 30/11/2022

Saul, The English Concert, Butt, Edinburgh International Festival 2022 review - properly exciting music drama | reviews, news & interviews

Saul, The English Concert, Butt, Edinburgh International Festival 2022 review - properly exciting music drama

Saul, The English Concert, Butt, Edinburgh International Festival 2022 review - properly exciting music drama

Master Handelian directs a marvellously colourful performance with outstanding singers

John Butt conducting the English Concert in the Usher HallRyan Buchanan

It’s not an opera, of course, but of all Handel’s oratorios, Saul is probably the one that is best suited to being presented as an actual drama.

Several productions, most notably Barrie Kosky's at Glyndebourne, have shown how it can work on stage, but this performance at the Edinburgh International Festival proved that you can have a great evening’s drama with nary a prop or costume in sight.

The key to Saul’s dramatic success is partly the condensed nature of its story but, more importantly, the vast range of music colours that Handel draws upon. It’s the most diverse orchestra he used in any of his oratorios, and it was that kaleidoscopic diversity that lay at the heart of this performance from The English Concert. The strings bounced along with terrific energy throughout, creating a properly big sound while remaining splendidly agile, and I don’t remember ever previously noticing the way Handel uses the violas like I did at this performance. English Concert in performance of SaulThe wind section sounded terrific, crowned by some chirruping transverse flutes, and they used a gloriously juicy chamber organ that provided important colour in all of the Sinfonias. The natural trumpets worked alongside some thunderous timps in the triumphal music, and a squawking trio of baroque trombones added some genuinely unusual tone. Add in the carillon at the climax of Act 1 and, when all these tricks came together, the effect was thrilling.

At the centre of it all stood John Butt, not the originally advertised conductor, but a man who knows the world of Handel’s theatre inside out. Not only did he man the continuo, but he controlled the unfolding drama marvellously, on the one hand slowing down to wallow in the beauty of “O Lord whose mercies numberless”, and on the other adding terrific fizz for Saul’s rage aria. The Death March unfolded with majestic solemnity, and all of the triumphal choruses rang out with thrilling power. Iestyn Davies as David in 'Saul'They had assembled a top-notch vocal cast, too, led by Iestyn Davies’ David (pictured above in the second of two rehearsal images by Andrew Perry), perhaps the most purely alluring sound I’ve heard all festival. Davies uses his countertenor like a precision instrument, dazzling up and down the scale in his coloratura, but creating the most bewitching, almost erotic sound in his slower music. Andrew Haji’s tenor made for a mellifluously lovely Jonathan, seeming to caress every phrase he sang. Neal Davies effectively charted Saul’s journey from nobility to jealousy, and he sounded like a broken man by the start of Act 3. James Gilchrist sounds increasingly like a wise sage: his tenor has less sweetness now, but more authority, and he doubled as an excellent Witch of Endor. Sophie Bevan was proud of face but sweet of voice as Saul’s haughty daughter Merab, while Liv Redpath’s Michal was deliciously sweet in contrast.

The Choir of the English Concert sang with thrilling clarity throughout, and you’ll rarely hear Handel’s fugues sung with such precision. The performance was filmed to be streamed, I’m told, on the websites of both the Edinburgh International Festival and the English Concert. Catch it if you can. It avoids the frequent Handel trap of becoming merely a series of beautiful sounds; instead it’s an evening of properly exciting music drama.

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