By Marvin J. Ward
BOSTON — The Handel and Haydn Society, led by artistic director Harry Christophers, ended its bicentennial season, celebrated over two years, in Symphony Hall on April 29 with a riveting performance of Handel’s infrequently heard oratorio Saul, which the society had never before offered.
Written in 1738, four years before Messiah, and premiered on January 16, 1739, Saul was Handel’s fourth such work in English, the first to use a bass as the lead soloist, and the first for which Charles Jennens, compiler of Messiah’s text, wrote the libretto. Some movements were cut from this performance, which used Anthony Hicks’ critical edition of the score, to keep it under three hours.
Christophers had led his UK group The Sixteen in a 2012 recording of the complete Saul (Coro COR 16103) following a performance in November 2011 at the Barbican Hall in London. Three of the Boston soloists were reprising their roles from both: sopranos Elizabeth Atherton and Joélle Harvey and tenor Robert Murray as Saul’s children, Merab, Michal, and Jonathan, respectively.
Other smaller roles, including the High Priest and Witch of Endor, the apparition of Samuel, Doeg, and the Amakelite warrior were all expertly sung and interpreted by members of the H+H chorus: Stefan Reed (first two roles), Woodrow Bynum, Bradford Gleim, and Jonas Budris respectively, moved to the front of the stage. The ultra-brief role (two single-sentence recitatives in Act I) of Abner was absorbed into that of Jonathan.
The oratorio text is taken from books I Samuel 15 through II Samuel 5 in the Bible, the 1656 verse epic Davideis by Abraham Cowley, and a 1703 play by Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery. Boyle’s The Tragedy of King Saul tells the history of the Hebrew people from their defeat of the Philistines by David under Saul, their king, to the elevation of David, a shepherd, to that kingship.
Although God had warned the Israelites against having a king, the people chose Saul, duly anointed by Samuel, who then abused his power, ultimately attempting to kill his son Jonathan. The youth had an intimate relationship with David, the warrior who saved the Hebrews in the battle with the Philistines, in which he killed Goliath, and whom Saul then pursued out of jealousy and fear, leading to his own demise.
Saul and Jonathan are both killed in Act III in a battle with the Amalekites, who took advantage of Saul’s clemency in sparing their king in a previous war to reorganize and attack again, leading the Israelites to choose David as their king. Jennens stays closer to the overt biblical version of the relationship between David and Jonathan than do the aforementioned period retellings, using the famous line: “Great was the pleasure I enjoy’d in thee, and more than woman’s love thy wondrous love to me!” (II Samuel 1:26) in the elegiac lament David sings for Jonathan just before the final choral number.
Handel’s music follows the narrative and supports the text well, but the composer resists the temptation to lead up to a triumphal “Halleluiah” chorus as in Part 2 of Messiah. Instead, he offers a similar chorus of victory over the Philistines in Act I, and concludes the work with music reminiscent of his 1727 coronation anthem for George II and Caroline: “Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened.”
Saul has greater variety in its music than does Messiah, with several instrumental movements, including a funeral march, interspersed among the recitatives and choral numbers. The 12-minute overture of typical Handelian music opens with a melody that resembles “Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates” in Messiah; there are melodies throughout that seem familiar.
The orchestra required for Saul is the largest in any of Handel’s oratorios. It includes a carillon (which makes a sound like chiming bells) and a Baroque triple harp. (The harp’s two outer rows of strings are tuned like the white keys of a piano and the inner row is tuned like the black keys, which eliminates shifting pedals and makes the instrument easier and quicker to play.) A lengthy harp solo follows one of David’s major arias. In darker moments, bassoons play a major role.
Iestyn Davies, in the role of David, sang nearly all his texts from memory — smoothly, naturally, without apparent effort — in the finest countertenor performance I have ever heard. Jonathan Best portrayed Saul’s confusion and anger convincingly.
Indeed, all the soloists used their expressive skills effectively to enhance their vocal lines. They sometimes turned toward the characters they were addressing instead of always facing the audience. Through restrained gestures and facial expressions that reflected the sense of the text, the singers compensated for the lack of actual staging in what is normally a stand-and-deliver work.
During the “Welcome” chorus that greets the return of Saul and David from the battle, the H+H Young Women’s Chamber Choir streamed down the aisles, swirling banner-like ribbons attached to sticks as they sang, thus including the audience in the celebration, transforming it momentarily into the assembled Hebrew people.
Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December 2009.