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George Frideric Handel: Saul, oratorio in 3 acts (HWV 53)

Nancy Argenta (Michal), Laurie Reviol (Merab), soprano; Michael Chance (David), alto; Michael Berner (Abner, Amalekite, High Priest, Witch), Marc LeBrocq (Jonathan), tenor; Steffen Balbach (Doeg, Samuel), Stephen Varcoe (Saul), bass
Maulbronner Kammerchor, Die Hannoversche Hofkapelle
Dir.: Jürgen Budday

rec: Sep 28 - 29, 2002 (live), Convent Maulbronn (Ger)
K&K Verlagsanstalt - ISBN 3-930643-83-9 (2 CDs; 77'50"/79'27")

It was in the 1730s that Handel started to compose oratorios on English texts. Saul was composed in 1738 and was the first one for which Charles Jennens wrote the libretto.
In many ways Saul is a remarkable oratorio. More than in his previous oratorios we meet the opera composer: Saul is a very dramatic work which is underlined by the pace with which the events around Saul, his son Jonathan and David develop. This pace is enhanced by the fact that a number of arias are short and without da capo.
The choir regularly plays a role of its own: it depicts the Israelites, singing the praise of David at the beginning of the first act - and by doing so causing the jealousy of Saul - and at the end, when it joins David in the lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan.
The orchestra is used to great dramatic effect. It includes unusual instruments like the carillon and large military drums. The harp and the organ also appear as solo instruments.
Also interesting are the characters: not only was their number unusually large (11), but they are also quite sharply portrayed. The strongly different profiles of Saul's daughters Merab and Michal are a good example, as is the development in the character of David.

It is a shame that this performance doesn't bring those qualities out. As a whole it is lacklustre and without real commitment from all participants. An indication is the lack of pace: most tempi are rather slow, contradicting the momentum of events.
The recording is not complete. Several numbers have been cut, but the booklet doesn't say so. Therefore I don't know whether the original performance was complete and the cuts have been made to make the recording fit two CDs or whether the performance itself was incomplete. My guess is the latter is the case.
One of the main deficiencies of this recording is the orchestra. It doesn't play badly, but its playing is utterly undramatic. It doesn't give the singers any real support in the representation of their characters. Due to the often unnatural pauses between numbers this performance just drags on. It is ironic that where one would expect a short pause there is none: when Saul's servant Doeg comes to arrest David he sings: "Show me his chamber", and then, having discovered there is only an image in the bed: "Do you mock the king?". One would expect a short pause here, to suggest Doeg looking into the bed, but here both lines are sung at a stretch without a moment of silence between them.

As I have said, the singers aren't really supported by the orchestra, but they are not doing a great job anyway. I wouldn't say the casting is bad. In fact, the singers for the roles of Saul's daughters are rather well-chosen. Merab and Michal are very different characters: Merab every inch a bitch, Michal much more soft and gentle. The voices of Laurie Reviol and Nancy Argenta are just as different. Only Saul is really miscast: Stephen Varcoe's voice doesn't have the depth nor the sharp edges to give this character any credibility.
The problem is that the singing in general is rather mediocre. Nancy Argenta is way past her prime, singing with a constant wide vibrato and also sounding very vulnerable, as if she has to sing at half power. Laurie Reviol doesn't make too much of her role.
Michael Chance isn't really singing badly, but technically not flawless: he has some problems with upward leaps and in the upper register his voice doesn't sound relaxed. His expression is limited; the aria "Impious wretch" doesn't make any impression.
The duet of Michal and David ("O fairest of ten thousand fair - O lovely maid") is bland; the voices of Ms Argenta and Chance don't blend very well either.
The attempt of Michael Berner to sing the role of the Witch like an old woman is rather pathetic and utterly unconvincing.
Not only cuts have been made: the part of the harp is played on the lute, and the carillon has been replaced by a celesta, an instrument which was developed only in the second half of the 19th century!

All criticisms of aspects of this recording apart, the main thing is that it is very undramatic, and that is a deadly sin. It makes this release superfluous. Who cares then that the booklet doesn’t give the libretto?

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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