SAUL - ADELAIDE
SAUL – ADELAIDE FESTIVAL, Adelaide Festival Theatre, 3-9 March 2017. Photography by Tony Lewis
Three of the most memorable musical experiences of my life have happened in Adelaide: Elke Neidhardt’s Ring Cycle, the SA Opera’s Cloudstreet and now the Armfield-Healy Adelaide Festival’s offering of Barrie Kosky’s Saul.
Mostly we know, from sad experience, anticipation is better stomped on because high expectations are so often disappointed. Yet when the name “Barrie Kosky” is heard, the immediate sense of excitement and bubbling anticipation are impossible to suppress. Consequently tickets for Saul, Handel’s oratorio from 1739, in a production first staged at Glyndebourne in 2015, were among the fastest to leave the box office for this summer’s Adelaide Festival. And no wonder.
Kosky has taken this hitherto static and stately work of baroque sumptuousness and turned it into dynamic theatre. From the quasi-elegant opening tableau of a stage-width table, laden with an opulent feast, whose surface beauty is gradually revealed as grotesque in detail (design Katrin Lea Tag), Saul is musically and dramatically thrilling.
Downstage from the banquet, the otherwise empty, raked stage is covered in thick black dirt. The gathered chorus – the Israelites but looking like the progeny of an unholy coupling between Hogarth and Otto Dix – look on as a triumphant David arrives from slaying Goliath. The State Opera Chorus under Brett Weymark, choreographed by Otto Pichler, is integral to the drama and music and is magnificent, as is the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, led by Erin Helyard.
Leading the cast is the original Glyndebourne Saul, English baritone Christopher Purves. His immersion in KoskyWorld is breathtaking – physically, histrionically and vocally – and the success of the drama radiates from and around him. At first confidently regal, as he sees how David’s presence shifts the balance of power, his furious paranoia grows exponentially. He is unnerving as he shifts from state to state, becoming ever more dangerous and fantastical; and taking the production with him.
As David, the American countertenor Christopher Lowrey is gloriously plausible. Whomever falls for him could be doing so because of his honeyed, seductive voice or because of his honeyed, seductive presence, either way it’s obvious why the king grows suspicious and displeased.
At first, however, Saul is pleased with David for bringing down the Philistine, Goliath – whose huge and grisly severed head occupies centre stage when not being casually sat on. Saul offers his daughter Merab (Mary Bevan) as David’s reward, but she’ll have none of it because he’s working class. Saul’s other offspring, Jonathan (Adrian Strooper) and Michal (Taryn Fiebig), aren’t bothered by such social niceties and are beguiled by the handsome shirtless hero. While leading – or goading – the Israelites, the High Priest (Stuart Jackson) literally moves the mob in its responses to the twists and turns in the emotional territory.
Each of the soloists lives up to the demands of the production, occupying his or her role with total conviction and commitment. And none more so than Kanen Breen in a brief but electrifying appearance as the Witch of Endor. Against Nature and the conceivable his/her grotesquely droopy dugs feed Saul copious quantities of milk as he seeks to conjure up the ghost of Samuel. In the auditorium the fascinated/repelled audience response was not only tangible but also a classic Kosky moment.
There are wave upon wave of emotional and physical reactions in the audience to this extraordinary production. There is wonder at the spectacle, laughter at the many comical and humorous moments, sadness when the dark is lit only by countless flickering candles and shapeless mounds are revealed as the bodies on a battlefield...in short, it’s marvellous.
The Festival initially announced Saul with the line, “opera is returning to the Adelaide Festival!” It could do so only via a $700,000 grant from the SA Government and that provoked restive and predictable grumbling. Newly-installed artistic directorial duo Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy must have had sleepless nights in the lead-up to this March, but they’ve been totally vindicated in their decision. This Saul is one for the ages and a reminder of what a festival can – and should – be about. Congratulations and many thanks.