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Concert reviews

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Saul, oratorio in 3 acts (HWV 53)

Maria Keohane (Michal), Siri Karoline Thornhill (Merab), soprano; Daniel Taylor (David), alto; Alastair Carey (High Priest), Charles Daniels (Jonathan), Brian Galliford (Witch of Endor), tenor; Christopher Purves (Saul), baritone
The Netherlands Bach Society
Dir: Jos van Veldhoven
concert: October 8, 2009, Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn

The most famous oratorio by George Frideric Handel is Messiah, which was written on a libretto by Charles Jennens. In 1738 he cooperated with Handel for the first time, when he was writing the libretto of the oratorio Saul. 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 are developing. This pace is enhanced by the fact that a number of arias are short and without da capo.

The choruses are often dramatic as well. The choir takes several roles: it represents the Jewish people, singing the praise of David at the beginning of the first act and joining David in his lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan in the third. But it also acts as a commentator, expressing aversion to Saul's behaviour towards David. The orchestra is used to great dramatic effect. It included unusual instruments like the carillon and large military drums. The harp and the organ also appear as solo instruments.

There are 11 characters which is more than in most of Handel's oratorios. Some of them have a very small role to play, though. The key characters are sharply portrayed. First of all Saul, who is the villain of the piece, but also his daughters Merab and Michal which are each other's opposites. In addition, there is a clear development within the characters of Merab and David.

As in most of Handel's oratorios some elements are rather based on fantasy than on the story as told in the Bible. For instance, Merab - Saul's eldest daughter - is portrayed as a rather haughty person who does feel nothing but contempt for a boy "of poor plebeian parents born" and abhors her father's idea of her marrying David. But in the biblical story Merab is only mentioned, and nothing is told of her feelings about a marriage to David.

When David has married Michal - after Saul decided to give Merab to someone else - Saul is sending one of his attendants to arrest David. The name of this attendant is Doeg, but in the Bible no name is given. Doeg, an Edomite, does appear in the Bible, but only at a later stage of the conflict between Saul and David. Pure fantasy is the role of the High Priest, who is acting as a commentator. When Jonathan confirms his friendship with David and values this more than "birth and fortune" this is hailed by the High Priest: "Go on, illustrious pair! Your great example shall teach your youth to scorn the sordid world and set their hearts on things of real worth".

It also needs to be said that the portrayal of Saul is one-dimensional in comparison to the biblical story. In the Bible he is shown as a person who wanders between his despise for - and fear of - David and his awareness that David is morally ahead of him and that his own behaviour is unjust.

A specific issue is the use of a carillon which had Handel built especially for this oratorio. It isn't known exactly what kind of instrument this has been. In most recordings a celesta is used, but this instrument was only invented in the late 19th century, and also is too weak to be as clearly audible as Handel's intention must have been. In the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society a mobile carillon was used, and although this instrument is also without historical foundation it is much better suited to create the effect Handel must have had in mind. In particular the balance with the choir was far better than when a celesta had been used.

It was just one of the merits of this performance. The choir of the Netherlands Bach Society - about 28 singers in total - gave splendid performances of the choruses, making them as dramatic as they are intended to be. The playing of the orchestra was also of a high standard, despite some minor hiccups which are inevitable in a live performance. The solo contributions of Siebe Henstra at the organ and Constance Allanic on the harp were excellent, and so was Boudewijn Zwart's playing of the carillon, although the fast tempi created some problems now and then.

The performances of the soloists were a bit uneven. The star of the night was without doubt Christopher Purves who gave a dramatic account of the role of Saul. His voice has exactly the depth and the sharp edges to give his character credibility. Both Saul's rage and his sneakiness were brilliantly expressed.
In comparison Daniel Taylor could only partially convince as David. The development in this role did hardly materialise as his singing was too often a bit pale. And although he has a nice voice, it is not very powerful. In 'O fatal day' (act 3) he is supposed to sing with the choir and that only makes sense when his singing is audible. But in this performance it wasn't: he was completely overpowered by the choir.
Jonathan has an important role in this oratorio, and with Charles Daniels this part was ideally cast. Both in his recitatives and his arias he sang with great expression and distinction.

Merab and Michal are very different characters: Merab every inch a bitch, Michal much softer and gentler. But this opposition wasn't fully explored. Maria Keohane had the perfect voice for the part of Michal and gave fine performances of her arias. But Siri Karoline Thornhill was just not bitchy enough for the role of Merab. In the second act she takes the side of David and Jonathan because she is abhorred by her father's cruelty. Here her performance was much more convincing, but as a result of a lack of sharp edges in the first act the change of heart wasn't clearly depicted.

The smaller roles were all sung well by Brian Galliford and members of the choir. One of them was Alastair Carey, who gave a good account of the role of the High Priest, but his voice wasn't as strong as this part requires. Considering its role in the oratorio it should have been given more weight.

Despite my critical remarks I have enjoyed the performance as a whole. It was good enough to convincingly demonstrate the many virtues of this oratorio, and there certainly wasn't a lack of drama. And that is essential to make a really good performance.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

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