Our guide to Glyndebourne: Saul

SAUL ensemble

SAUL ensemble

Continuing our guide to the operas Glyndbourne are bringing to our theatre this year. Up this time: Saul.

This production is a bit of an unusual one for Glyndebourne, mainly because Saul isn’t technically an opera at all. It was in fact, composed as an oratorio. What, you may well ask, is an oratorio? Well, the word comes originally from the Italian word for ‘pulpit’ or ‘oratory’  – and as this suggests, oratorios have their roots in religious services.

In many other ways, they are very similar to operas, featuring as they do orchestras, choirs, and soloists performing arias. However, while operas deal with a wide range of subjects, oratorios are usually concerned with religious stories. In their original form, oratorios would have featured less interaction between characters and minimal costumes, props and sets. It’s now common for oratorios to be staged to the same level as operas – that’s the case with this production, as you can see from the images here.

SAUL_Glyndebourne, Director; Barrie Kosky, Saul; Christopher Purves, David; Iestyn Davies, Merab; Lucy Crowe, Michal; Sophie Bevan, Jonathan; Paul Appleby, High Priest; Benjamin Hulett, Witch of Endor; John Graham_Hall,

Having (hopefully) cleared that up, let’s move on to the plot. Being an oratorio, its subject matter is indeed religious. Freely adapted from the Biblical First Book of Samuel, it tells the story of the first King of Israel ( the Saul of the title) and his difficult relationship with David (of Goliath-slaying fame), his eventual successor, which finally (spoiler alert!) leads to Saul’s tragic death.

Although composed by the German-born Handel, Saul is sung in English, and was first performed in London, where Handel had been living for several years, in 1739. Musically, it’s conceived on a hugely grand scale, and requires a large orchestra, with very unusual instruments, including a carillon – a keyboard instrument which makes a sound like chiming bells. Handel’s enthusiasm for these instruments led his collaborator, Charles Jennens, to describe him as having a head “full of maggots”.

The best known piece of music from Saul is the ‘Dead March’ which appears in part three. It’s been played at many state funerals, including that of Winston Churchill.

This production is the Glyndebourne debut of Australian director Barrie Kosky, who won the Best Director prize at the International Opera Awards in 2014. It’s been hugely well-received, with five star reviews from several critics, including those from The Telegraph and The Independent (and opera critics are a tough crowd, they don’t give out stars lightly!).

The Telegraph said of this production, “It’s a knockout that brings the work blazingly alive and transforms bewigged pieties into high human drama.” The Independent  described it as musically “flawless” while The Guardian said “theatrically and musically, this is one of Glyndebourne’s finest shows of recent years.”

We’re definitely in for a treat with this one.


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