HGO presents Handel’s “Saul” with modern soul in stylized staging

Sat Oct 26, 2019 at 3:27 pm
By Steven Brown
Christopher Purves stars in the title role of Handel’s Saul at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Lynn Lane

As the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra zips through the Overture to George Frideric Handel’s Saul, light gradually dissipates the blackness of the Brown Theater stage. A form lying near the stage’s edge finally becomes clear: It’s Goliath’s severed head, duly giant-sized.

The front drop rises on the Israelites’ celebration of their Philistine foe’s slaying. But these Israelites don’t come from an illustrated Bible. They’re decked out in a stylized take on 18th-century finery–costumes splashed with pastel colors, high-piled wigs capping off the look. Perched atop a banquet table that spans the stage, the Israelites create a series of freeze-frame tableaux vivants of festive hijinks. The hero David, still spattered with Goliath’s blood, falls exhausted next to the giant’s head. 

Director Barrie Kosky’s production–premiered at England’s Glyndebourne Festival in 2015 and brought to Houston on Friday–soon intensifies the time warp. Six dancers step from the crowd and launch into hip-swiveling, arm-slinging gyrations with tinges of Elvis, Bob Fosse and more. The terpsichorean salvos are so vigorous that, on Friday, one dancer’s wig flew free and tripped him.

But as Friday’s performance unfolded, it revealed that Kosky–as well as revival director Donna Stirrup and set-and-costumer designer Katrin Lea Tag–took Handel as seriously as any traditionalist. 

The more that Saul’s jealousy of the exalted David consumed him, the more austere Kosky’s production became. The final scenes played out on a stage that was bare except for several inches of dirt. Nearly everyone onstage wore sober black–except for the unhinged Saul, denuded of kingly regalia down to his undershorts.

HGO’s cast made the downward trajectory coalesce into a powerful saga of nobility colliding with envy and obsession. The principals threw themselves into the physicality of Kosky and Stirrup’s staging–and into the theatricality of Handel’s music.

In HGO’s 2017 staging of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Christopher Purves–suspended in midair–created a spellbinding Alberich through vocal half-tones and minimal gestures. 

Saul’s agonies often took Purves to the other extreme. His grainy yet ringing baritone had a formidable impact in itself. But Purves let loose with sheer, snarling force when Saul’s fury boiled over–as in the short but fierce aria “With rage I shall burst.”

And Purves’ singing offered still other colors. When Saul pretends to abandon jealousy and accept David, Purves delivered the news in broad, noble phrases. When Saul asks the Witch of Endor to conjure up the ghost of Samuel, Kosky has the dead man’s prophecy of doom issue from Saul–and Purves’ dark, weighty tones created an entirely different character.

In the grips of anger, Purves’ Saul cut a fearsome figure. “With rage I shall burst” included mad-dog lunges at the courtiers, and Saul soon fell into a writhing fit amid the stage dirt. Later still, Purves’ Saul ran laps around the bare stage in his agitation. But Purves was just as compelling when his Saul seemed lost in a fog of confusion amid the celebrations.

Kosky and Stirrup made David’s dignity the counterpoint to Saul’s violence, and countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen captured that in the hero’s singing and demeanor alike. 

Cohen brought purity, poise and eloquence to David’s attempt at consoling Saul–the gentle aria “Oh Lord, whose mercies numberless”–and the last-scene lament for David’s slain friend Jonathan. Yet Cohen also sang with nimbleness and vibrancy when happier emotions came to the fore.

Cohen’s David by and large carried himself with a stillness that exuded nobility, and he also captured a tender streak in Kosky’s staging. In the first scene, as the victorious David accepted everyone’s salutes, he kissed Saul on the forehead. During “Oh Lord, whose mercies numberless,” Cohen’s David lowered himself to the ground next to Saul and cradled him in his arms.

Sopranos Andriana Chuchman and Pureum Jo complemented one another neatly as Saul’s daughters, respectively Michal and Merab. Jo carried herself haughtily as the pompous Merab; Chuchman’s Michal launched into a footloose happy dance when Saul ordered her to marry David.

Jo’s brighter voice enhanced the contrast. But both sopranos had heft enough to bring out the impact of their arias early in the story, albeit with flashes of stridency at times. Later, they brought a wider expressive range to their more lyrical arias–such as Merab’s “Author of peace”–building them from gentle beginnings to fervent climaxes.

Tenor Paul Appleby–like Purves, a member of the production’s Glyndebourne cast–sang with a freshness and fluency that captured Jonathan’s sincerity and devotion to David. His Jonathan also mirrored the dignity and tenderness of Cohen’s David.

Kosky’s staging combines several of the supporting roles–such as the High Priest–into a single, exotic figure with a snaky demeanor and claw-like fingernails. Tenor Keith Jameson brought the character alive through a vivid combination of sinuous movement and wry, acid-tinged voice. 

Tenor Chad Shelton, as the bearded-lady Witch of Endor, summoned Samuel from the afterlife with a ringing incantation that made a big impression in a short time.

The HGO Chorus made its own vivid contribution to Handel and Kosky’s storytelling. Once the group unfroze from the opening tableaux, the singers’ individual little dances mirrored the jubilation of the main sextet’s moves. The chorus’ clipped, bright singing brought out the exuberance of the first scene’s hallelujahs; later, its bite and power made “Envy, eldest born of hell” into a formidable portrait of evil.

During the Dead March, the score’s one relatively well-known section, the chorus members  lay strewn about the stage to portray the dead warriors. The group’s expressiveness and transparency filled the final laments with feeling.

The HGO Orchestra, led by Patrick Summers, by and large played with crispness and clarity, whether it was propelling the trumpets-and-drums excitement or delicately supporting the laments’ poetry. Handel’s instrumental movements let the group’s agility shine–usually while helping animate the six dancers. Neither the orchestra, singers nor Kosky let any moment go to waste.

Handel’s Saul runs through Nov. 8 at Wortham Theater Center. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737

One Response to “HGO presents Handel’s “Saul” with modern soul in stylized staging”

  1. Posted Nov 06, 2019 at 10:20 am by Maria

    I went yesterday to Saul. I left at the intermission. The production was in incredibly bad taste and anachronic. It was such an idiocy, I had to close my eyes to be able to enjoy Handel’s music. One of the soloists could not even sing, Paul Appleby, playing Jonathan. It was embarrassing. I have never seen this at any opera, even with amateurs. The role was not even challenging. Overall, it was shear mockery.

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