Usher Hall, Edinburgh
To describe Handel’s oratorio Saul as “an opera in all but name” is also to acknowledge the risk that it is neither one nor the other, and that was true of this concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival. Like the Philharmonia’s Fidelio in the opening week, it might have been enhanced by the involvement of an overseeing directorial eye, placing and moving the musicians.
It is a small thing, but particularly annoying was the seating of the natural trombones – instruments with which the composer was breaking new ground – almost invisibly behind the handsome, and very tall, chamber organ that had been brought on to the platform for the occasion (the hall’s own fine built-in instrument being anachronistically too powerful for the job).
The orchestra here was period band The English Concert, founded by Trevor Pinnock, currently directed by Harry Bicket and conducted here by Dunedin Consort’s John Butt, replacing Bernard Labadie. Scotland is indeed fortunate to have on hand someone not only able to jump in and direct three hours of rare Handel, but guaranteed to do so in a style that finds the natural propulsion of the score and is supremely sensitive to the needs of the singers.
And what a cast of principals we heard! Countertenor Iestyn Davies is as capable of filling the Usher Hall with swelling sustained notes and filigree ornamentation as he has been of holding a Queen’s Hall audience in the palm of his hand. His David was wonderfully matched at the start by Sophie Bevan’s Merab – the finest acting performance from among these singers and in glorious voice. Canadian tenor Andrew Haji and American soprano Liv Redpath were excellent, if slightly less animated, as Jonathan and Michal, and James Gilchrist the perfect choice to double in the ecclesiastical and pagan roles of the High Priest and the Witch of Endor.
The same casting wisdom applies to bass Neal Davies in the title role, who caught exactly the right tone for the vacillating King, allowing us to find a little sympathy for a difficult character.
In what was the only choreographed move of the night, the 26 singers of the English Concert stood up by section before the opening choruses (the “Hallelujah” is near the start of this one), which immediately made apparent how few of them were producing such a rich sound. The choir’s precision dispatch of the complex “Oh fatal consequence of rage” at the end of Act 2 was particularly memorable. Step-outs in the smaller roles were uniformly excellent, and bass William Thomas – credited only in the supertitles at the start – made a huge impression in his Act 3 cameo as the Apparition of Samuel.
As well as those trombones, the period instrument band was full of fascinating colours – this was a work on which Handel really indulged himself. Silas Wollston’s chamber organ had an early showpiece and Masumi Yamamoto supplied the bells of the carillon in Act 1 as well as her harpsichord continuo, while Oliver Wass followed a Iestyn Davies aria with a lovely harp solo played from memory. Among the combinations of instruments Handel deploys, the trio of cello, harp and archlute for Bevan’s “Author of peace” was especially lovely.
If the Act 3 Death March, once a mainstay of state funerals, is best known of the music, the scene that precedes it is Saul at its most operatic, as the King turns his back on his faith to consult the witch. We are in similar territory to Macbeth here – librettist Charles Jennens was a Shakespearean as well as a Bible scholar – and surely paving the way for the confrontation between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore. Those parallels appeared, and sounded, to be in the mind of Neal Davies’s impressive Saul.
Picture of Neal Davies by Gerard Collett