Amongst opera’s myriad tones and voices, there’s none that delivers a simple, direct punch to the emotions quite like a Handelian high note, held pure and clean at the start with a touch of vibrato to add colour as the note progresses. In Saul at Glyndebourne, Lucy Crowe delivered that kind of knock-out punch in just her fourth note – the “raised” of the oratorio’s first aria, ”An infant raised by thy command”. It set a high standard for everyone else to follow, and follow it they did.

Christopher Purves (Saul) and Lucy Crowe (Merab) © Bill Cooper
Christopher Purves (Saul) and Lucy Crowe (Merab)
© Bill Cooper

And, indeed, exceeded it: when Iestyn Davies’ David attributes his victory over Goliath to God (”O king, your favours with delight, I take, but must refuse your praise”), the strength and purity of the countertenor’s voice were heart-melting. And Crowe and Davies were not alone: time and again through this performance, one singer after another gave us assured line, sweet timbre and, most of all, perfect elocution of Charles Jennens’ libretto. The Glyndebourne Chorus were also taking care of their intelligibility: I’ve heard them a lot louder, but never as clear. The emphasis on diction is worth it, because Jennens’ poetry is exquisite, and once Handel has applied his musical alchemy to lines like “His temper knows no middle state / Extreme alike in love or hate,” the result is pure gold.

<i>Saul</i> Act III Sinfonia © Bill Cooper
Saul Act III Sinfonia
© Bill Cooper
By Barrie Kosky’s standards, this is a relatively straightforward production – only in the Witch of Endor sequence do we get any Regietheater weirdness (including Kosky’s liking, going by ENO’s Castor and Pollux, for bits of people growing upwards out of the earth). Straightforward, maybe, but packed with visual treats. Some of the tableaux were breathtaking: our opening view of the chorus, clad in Handel-era costumes, could have come straight from the paintbrush of Rubens, while the staging of the Act III Sinfonia, the organist rising on a rotating console amidst a sea of candles, produced an audible gasp (the organist is presumably depicting Handel himself, who in real life spent an unconscionable sum on a new organ for use in Saul).

Otto Pichler’s choreography is lively and exciting: he has six professional dancers to work with, but the chorus is also heavily choreographed and some of the soloists are required to show their dance skills, most notably Benjamin Hulett, who sings various minor roles. This is a production where everything is constantly in motion: if anyone thinks that Handel opera/oratorio is no more than a lengthy series of da capo arias, this is the show to dispel that view.

Kosky also gets top drawer acting performances from his cast. Top honours here go to Christopher Purves in the title role, who is utterly believable as he charts Saul’s descent into anger and ultimately derangement: Purves bellows, raves, jibbers, leaving room for moments of lucidity at the times when the music demands it, showing a smooth, controlled voice that is perfectly adapted to this repertoire. There were many superb dramatic moments: my favourite was when David's voice and harp calm the raving Saul – for a music lover, one of the most compelling sets of verses in the original Bible story, and rendered here with a very visible off-stage harp and highly intelligent acting.

Benjamin Hulett (High Priest) © Bill Cooper
Benjamin Hulett (High Priest)
© Bill Cooper

Every soloist excelled. Sophie Bevan gave us gentleness and credible girlish excitement as Michal. The role of Jonathan is a tricky one, requiring clarity in the high notes, robustness low in the register and nobility in both: Paul Appleby duly delivered. Benjamin Hulett was continually a presence on stage to be reckoned with, and John Graham-Hall’s Witch of Endor was simply weird.

With the staging fireworks over, the extended anguish of David’s lament and the accompanying funeral music for Saul brought to a close a production which has just about everything going for it, the latest in a series of Handel hits at Glyndebourne. A must-see.