I am going to take the opportunity to review both operas currently available on a service called Sonostream. The first opera I watched (about a month ago) was the Theater-an-der-Wien's outstanding production of Der Fliegende Hollander. Tonight I watched the Glyndebourne production of the Handel Oratorio "Saul." I'll start with the latter. Here is the link for Sonostream - note that there is a small cost to be able to watch their operas. Also there are no titles.
Handel didn't invent the oratorio, but adapted it to suit his purposes. It was a clever way to circumvent the law against operatic performances in Lent. This is no opera - he could say - there are no sets or costumes or make-up plus the stories are all from the Bible. Handel composed a number of these. Curiously enough his most famous oratorio is the one which does not fit the pattern. "The Messiah" really has no plot. But the rest of them do: "Israel in Egypt," "Judas Maccabeus," "Samson," and "Saul" all have plots and characters. In essence they are operas. The one element which sets the oratorios apart from the operas of Handel is the use of the chorus. The oratorios of Handel contain glorious choruses. I believe it was this basic operatic feel which inspired the director and the Glyndebourne festival to mount this oratorio as a fully staged opera. And this production has it all: beautiful costumes, elaborate make-up, sets, props, staging, a glorious and well-staged chorus, excellent dancers and a brilliant cast and orchestra. Musically this production is superb. Christopher Purve takes the title role and gives an incredibly physical performance of the King who sinks slowly into madness. Vocally he was strong, though he had some trouble with the runs, but his presence on stage and his acting were outstanding. Paul Appleby was a wonderful Jonathan, Lucy Crowe was glorious as Saul's daughter Merab and Sophie Bevan was equally glorious as the other daughter Michel. For me it was countertenor Iestyn Davies who stole the show with his beautiful clear voice and his impeccable sense of style and musicality. His aria near the end of act 1 was perhaps the highlight of the performance for me. It doesn't hurt that it is one of Handel's most beautiful arias. Benjamin Hulett did a nice job, though I was never sure exactly who he was supposed to be, and vocally and musically John Graham-Hall was excellent as the Witch of Endor. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was brilliant and conductor Ivor Bolton did a fine job.
The production itself is hard to describe. Director Barrie Kosky was obviously attempting to present an interpretive representation of Saul's decline and destruction. But for me it was too much. Certainly it was colorful and at times really interesting. But I found act 2 in particular difficult to sit through. Nothing really made sense to me - what was with the candles? And who exactly was Benjamin Hulett supposed to be playing? He was a cross between Rigoletto and the Stage Manager from "Our Town." I really don't mind Regie productions, but I get bothered when things just don't make any sense. And for me at least most of act 2 made little sense. Why was everyone in their underwear in act 2 for example? And the scene with the Witch of Endor - which is musically one of Handel's greatest achievements - was almost impossible to watch. It was offensive and gross - which I think is what the director was going for. The choice of using a tenor for that role I found perplexing, though I thought having Saul sing Samuel's part was really insightful and clever. THe bottom line is that I did not like the production as a whole, though some of it worked, not all of it did in my view. But musically this was a terrific performance.
I word about the score. Of all of the oratorios I think Handel's score and orchestration is really interesting in this work. We have bells, harp and an extended organ solo (almost a concerto). And the staging of the organ concerto was great. I really enjoyed watching him play even if it was a little dizzying. And the use of the bassoons in the Endor scene is really fun. Too bad it was hard to listen to because of what was going on on stage.
On to Flying Dutchman:
2 years ago