A dead giant; a young, virtuous hero; a mad, envious king. Saul’s simple ingredients produce a drama of profound emotional complexity, in which Handel and his unerring librettist Charles Jennens were able to discuss the nature of leadership, class tensions, music’s healing power and the danger of charisma, as well as the intoxication of religious faith. Barrie Kosky’s vividly abstract production for Glyndebourne allows those themes to cry out to us today, his vision embracing every emotional detail of the oratorio, from its exhilarating choruses to its raw, intimate family scenes.

Karina Gauvin (Merab), Anna Devin (Michal), Iestyn Davies (David) and Allan Clayton (Jonathan) © Bill Cooper
Karina Gauvin (Merab), Anna Devin (Michal), Iestyn Davies (David) and Allan Clayton (Jonathan)
© Bill Cooper

Despite the stateliness of its Biblical source and the artificiality of Saul’s court, here brilliantly imagined as a debauched Georgian feast with patched and painted courtiers, the heart of Saul is a heartwrenching family tragedy: Saul’s three isolated children struggling to cope with a father whose “temper knows no middle state, /Extreme alike in love or hate.” Soft black soil smothers the sloping stage, a visual reminder of the Israelites’ ever-present hunger for territory, and a sign that their self-absorbed sophistication is, in fact, synthetic and transient, as tables piled high with flowers, fruit and exotic luxuries sit very much in the dirt. Saul’s obsession of contrast, strong and weak, fake and true, is beautifully encapsulated in Katrin Lea Tag’s bold design.

In this heightened, hysterical world, Iestyn Davies’ bloodstained David arrives as an interloper: everything about him, from his initial trembling bewilderment after Goliath’s death to his later tense stillness and burning sense of religious conviction, sets him apart from everyone else on stage. Davies’ mesmeric countertenor, lyrically smooth and supple, similarly proclaims David’s rarefied disconnection. He is free of their concerns, and focused instead on his tangibly real relationship with God: and they adore him for it. Saul’s jealousy boils over.

Iestyn Davies (David) and Markus Brück (Saul) © Bill Cooper
Iestyn Davies (David) and Markus Brück (Saul)
© Bill Cooper

Energetic choreography from Otto Pichler is just one of the highlights of a stupendous performance from The Glyndebourne Chorus, on top dynamic and melodic form throughout, further supported by six furiously animated dancers. Kosky adds voices beyond Handel’s music: we hear laughs, shouts, cries, sobs, sighs, gasps, even spoken words around and between the score, fleshing out each moment with human detail. Markus Brück’s ambitiously dramatic Saul bristles with pent-up rage from the start, spiralling into pathetic delusions and superb final insanity. Brück uses an array of vocal effects to load his warm baritone with psychological textures alongside anxious spoken mantras: “I’m the King,” he reminds himself desperately. “I am not mad,” he repeats, into contradicting silence. Kosky is not afraid of moments of silence to ratchet up stress and pathos, and Brück’s immediate, finely detailed acting is right up to this challenging mark. When Saul suckles the breast milk of the Witch of Endor, Brück produces a contrastingly settled, solemn spirit of the prophet Samuel.

Harmony and discord, as abstractions of good and evil, are constantly battling for pre-eminence: where Saul is discord, David is the embodiment of harmony. Davies held himself to the highest standards of music making in a rigorously focused performance, the fulcrum of all around him. He delivered “O Lord, whose mercies numberless” with resolute firmness which spoke sternly of David’s unshakable faith, offering Saul not mere comfort but utter conviction. As David finally assumed Saul’s mantle, the Israelites seemed only to have gained another ruthlessly determined leader, closing the piece on an intriguingly dark note.  

Anna Devin (Michal) © Bill Cooper
Anna Devin (Michal)
© Bill Cooper

Saul’s children, defiantly proud and loving of their frightening father, try vainly to find a way through the chaos he creates, poignantly divided by sibling tensions. Karina Gauvin’s fierce Merab excelled, especially after the interval, her lustrous soprano revelling in Merab’s more reflective arias as the princess weakens her hostility to David. Anna Devin’s Michal was full of girlish energy, utterly lovestruck by David from the start. Allan Clayton’s Jonathan was well-rounded and believable in his tenderly expressive tenor. Kosky combines Abner, the High Priest, the Amalekite and Doeg into one role for Stuart Jackson, striking a memorable figure as an irreverent, omniscient jester who owes much to Shakespeare’s wise fools, a natural fit for Kosky’s court concept.

Despite the strength of Kosky’s vision, certain tropes occasionally feel repetitive rather than revealing. Jackson’s excellent fool unfortunately becomes one of those. Kissing is another: it’s how we discover David and Jonathan’s affection is rather more than brotherly (extrapolated from hints in the letter, if not the spirit, of Jennens’ libretto). Saul’s sudden snogging of his daughter Merab was a fittingly disturbed and impious act of emotional aggression; but to snog the Witch of Endor and then walk away with her, hand in hand, felt faintly comic. The oratorio requires the grit of damnation here. But Kosky’s overall intellectual grip of the piece, and fabulous playing by the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment conducted by Laurence Cummings, bolstered by the glitz of harpsichord, organ and carillon, make Saul a compelling, intoxicating evening.