The biblical story of Saul is one of the most psychologically complex stories in the Old Testament. Young David is a humble shepherd brought to soothe the troubled spirit of King Saul with his harp-playing. Later David surprises everyone by defeating the Philistine champion Goliath in single combat. As David’s popularity grows, Saul becomes jealous. Saul’s son Jonathan becomes a close friend and loyal supporter of David in spite of his father’s murderous demands. There are also two daughters. The Princess Merab rejects the humble David, but her sister Michal loves and eventually will marry him.
It’s perfect for opera or oratorio.
George Frideric Handel and Charles Jennens (the librettist) begin their telling of the story of Saul with the triumphant celebration of the great victory over Goliath. Much of the last act is dark, including Saul’s encounter with a witch who calls forth a ghost prophesying defeat, and a sombre death march after he and his sons die in battle.
Tafelmusik orchestra & baroque choir are presenting Saul this weekend at Koerner Hall with a splendid group of soloists and led by Ivars Taurins. We sat with partial house-lights on to enable us to follow the libretto in our programs, an authentic way to present such a work.
While concert performances of operas can leave you feeling that essential elements are missing from the presentation, there’s nothing missing when you do an oratorio in concert. In fact there’s just enough drama, while we’re immersed in amazing music.
As David I was struck by counter-tenor Daniel Taylor’s resemblance to Russell Crowe, in a performance of genuine star-power. Taylor sings without the ostentation one sometimes encounters in baroque music, displaying exquisite precision and a tendency to understatement. As the Head of Historical Performance at the University of Toronto I can’t help wondering if his simple & unaffected singing is a matter of personal style or possibly the latest word in scholarship. Either way, it’s tasteful and compelling.
As the loyal Jonathan, Rufus Müller sang with great warmth & fluidity. His most powerful moment came in his dark reading of the tenor air near the end of the work, the words seeming to catch in his throat on the line “Lest we, whom once so much they fear’d /be by their women now depis’d.”
As the title character Peter Harvey gave us a colourful account of the conflicted and tormented king. Joanne Lunn & Sherezade Panthaki were a wonderfully contrasting pair of sisters. Panthaki gave us ardour & love, while Lunn was the haughty princess, a regal portrayal every bit as colourful & quirky as her troubled father.
Taurins is one of the most entertaining conductors to watch, marvellously fluid in his body language, but always in the service of his ensemble & the music. Saul is an extraordinarily good score, one I need to listen to again. The brass in the first section sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard in Handel. Often the arias dispense with da capo or recitative, so the action moves along much faster than what you might expect from Handel. Sure, it’s not Webern, but I’ve never encountered Handel that sounded so modern. The serenade music on the harp is mesmerizing even if you aren’t suffering from depression like King Saul. Tafelmusik Baroque Choir were an essential part of the story-telling, responding eloquently to Taurins every nuance.
Saul continues Sat Feb 22 at 8pm and Sun Feb 23 at 3:30pm in the delighful Koerner Hall.