Theater an der Wien 2017-18 Review – Saul: Claus Guth’s Interpretation Is More Pasolini Than Prophet

(Credit: Monika Rittershaus)

When a lyricist describes his composer’s head as “full of maggots”, the chances of a harmonious collaborative outcome would seem slim.

For Charles Jennens, the aesthete aristocratic librettist of Handel’s oratorio “Saul,” such a jeremiad was not a solitary instance. The principal object of Jennens’ ire was Handel’s highly original orchestration, especially the invention of a tinkling bell-like keyboard called a “Carillon” which has since disappeared with the dodo. The glockenspiel and celeste are its present-day incarnations. The celebrated architect and Palladio proselyte Lord Burlington, who was present at Saul’s premiere, wrote that the unfamiliar plinking sound in the zippy sinfonia following Michal’s “Ah, lovely youth” aria sounded like “squirrels in a cage”.  Perhaps early 18th century chipmunks in St James’ Park were more chirpy than their sciuridae successors. Another of Jennens’ gripes was about the organ which Handel specifically commissioned for himself to play in “Saul,” but that was probably more to do with the staggering cost of 500 pounds than aesthetic objections. When the average worker’s wage was around 10 pounds a year, this was no bagatelle. It was also not such a lasting investment as the costly bellows later vanished. Further instrumental innovations for Saul”were trombones, which had never been heard in London before and necessitated posaune players being imported from Germany. Given David’s noted proficiency as a lyre player, the harp is unsurprisingly used extensively. Inclusion of the third sinfonia for harp following “Oh Lord, whose mercies numberless” was a welcome entr’acte and peerlessly played. The final “maggot” in the magnum opus were the timpani which Handel borrowed from the Tower of London as they were tuned an octave lower than normal. Associations with executions were probably inadvertent although Handel speculated that the kettledrums “will be most excessive noisy.”

Wagnerian Handel

Considering that Handel was known to dash off a score, recycle previous music or even directly plagiarize if urgency prevailed, such diligence in orchestration as shown in “Saul”was exceptional. Perhaps in deference, Laurence Cummings conducted the Freiburger Barockorchester at the Theater an der Wien with fastidious adherence to the markings of the complex partitura. Sforzandi piani and marcati were scrupulously articulated and there was real biting string attack, especially in the oomphy introduction to “Along the monster atheist strode” and the brassy fortissimo sinfonia following “Author of peace”. The acrid dotted rhythm accompaniment to “Infernal spirits” was almost Wagnerian in its puissance. There was an overall translucency in the Freiburg ensemble’s reading, especially in the woodwinds and higher strings with some exceptionally fine playing from baroque oboes and bassoons. The famous Dead March was mournful without being lugubrious. A lot of traditional cuts were restored, particularly music for the High Priest and harp.

The only possible criticism was that apart from the sinfonias, the infamous trombones and timpani were kept relatively subdued which limited the impact of Handel’s dramatic orchestration.

Two Controversial Men Converge

Claus Guth is no stranger to directional controversy, with his recent moonscape mis-en-scène of “La Bohème” in Paris being the nadir thus far. In his programme notes, the German director admits he was strongly influenced by Pasolini’s “Teorema” in developing his concept of “Saul.”  This controversial film involves a mysterious outsider creating abject chaos in a hitherto ostensibly content bourgeois family by having sex with each member of the household, including the maid. Presumably, this explains Guth’s inclusion of a servant who not only performs domestic duties but also turns out to be the witch of Endor in Act three. Her failure to recognize Saul was hardly credible.

Guth’s interpretation of the biblical story with its Shakespearian tragic undertones was to reduce political, social and military events in 11th century BC Judah into a contemporary domestic drama with a bit of incest on the side. From David’s first appearance in a bloodied singlet and splattered cargo-trousers, almost everyone seemed to want to get into his pants. The important differences in character between Merab and her younger sister Michal became blurred as both were equally smitten by the handsome Goliath slayer. Jonathan’s homosexual lust was even more blatant, making a blood-brother pact straight after “Oh, early piety.” After moving into Château Saul and changing his former Scudder-ish peasant/shepherd garb for a chic cream suit with appropriate boy band coiffure, David cut an even more desirable figure. During “Such haughty beauties” there were the beginnings of a bisexual foursome with David in Jonathan’s arms being caressed by Michal as Merab started to perform fellatio. It was surprising that Guth didn’t include Saul’s other three sons for a real family orgy.

Dining room scenes with real victuals were frequent and after unceremoniously hurling Goliath’s head onto the table in breach of most of Emily Post’s edicts, the comely son of Jesse sat self-consciously between the lascivious siblings. The menu was also doctrinally dubious as the family wolfed down tasty shrimp cocktails suggesting that Saul lost God’s favor as much for his violation of Kashrut shellfish proscription as disobedience in not killing the Amalekites. The ghost of Samuel does not appear but “Why has thou forc’d me from the realms of peace” was sung by Saul himself as a delusional monologue. Instead of Jonathan being killed in battle beside his father, Saul stabs him at the end of “Where is the son of Jesse,” admittedly giving more sense to the following “Oh, fatal consequences of rage” chorus. Both sisters are banished during “Ye men of Judah, weep no more” and David appears with a previously unknown consort possibly anticipating Bathsheba but who bore an alarming resemblance to Rebekah Brooks. The oratorio ends with David showing identical signs of insanity to Saul and predictably scrawling his name on the wall over that of the now bloodied letters of “SAUL.” Psalm 34 avers to a ruse of madness David employed to escape from King Abimelech, but Guth’s implication is permanent mental disorder.

The chorus was rarely left to stand and sing but were burdened with so many hand gestures they seemed like a cross between Indian lotus movement dancers and semaphore cadets. That said, there were some outstanding stage images by Christian Schmidt, albeit with an excess of smoke. Constant turning of the circular stage looked like a revolving door in an high-end department store, but lighting by Bernd Purkrabek was particularly effective, especially during “Mourn, Israel, mourn.”

Not Quite Oxbridge English

Overall the singing was impressive but English diction far from Oxbridge. In the small role of the ill-omened messenger Amalekite, hirsute French tenor Quentin Desgeorges made a worthy impact.  A clarion interpolated high F sharp on “I am an Amalekite” foreshadowed a Bacchus of the future. Combining Abner, the High Priest and Doeg, Marcel Beekman had a slightly metallic timbre but good projection. Better diction came from Andrew Staples as the loyalty-torn Jonathan. This was especially evident in the recitatives and “O filial piety” was sensitively phrased. The fioratura passages were not always pristine-even but “No father, no!” was dramatically convincing. There was a certain disingenuousness in “Birth and fortune I despise” as Jonathan happily swilled several glasses of champagne dressed in a bespoke dinner jacket. Giulia Semenzato was visually appealing and vocally impressive as Michal. Purity of tone, tight trilling and an even melodic line were immediately apparent in “O godlike youth” and “Fell rage and black despair,”  supported by an excellent flute obbligato, was luxuriant in timbre. The “O fairest of ten thousand fair” duet with David was a sensitive synthesis of homogenous vocalization.

Solid Stars

It was announced that star soprano Anna Prohaska as Merab was still indisposed having canceled the last two performances. There was some evidence of vocal impairment, especially in a sluggish lower register, but Prohaska’s inherent musicality was still in evidence. The characterization lacked the Turandot-like epiphany which makes “Mean as he was, he is my brother now” so emotive but there were vocal fireworks aplenty in the high tessitura of “My soul rejects the thought with scorn.” “Capricious man, in humour lost” had a touch of metal even if the low C’s were not especially robust.

Young English countertenor Jake Alitti certainly looked like a “lovely youth” and his David was a cross between the innocent fool Parsifal and fearless Siegfried. Alitti’s acting skills were outstanding and his coming to maturity utterly convincing. Vocally Alitti was more secure in the mezza voce and long legato phrases and “O King, your favours with delight” was sung with such captivating innocence and evenness of tone it was not surprising Saul’s sprouts were beguiled. The F natural fermata on “to God alone” was ravishing in color and celestial in conviction. “Oh Lord, whose mercies numberless” was exquisitely phrased with excellent breath control. Despite being pawed and unzipped by Saul’s offspring during “Such haughty beauties,” Alitti managed to sing the quaver roulades with a measured tone and intuitive musicality. “Impious wretch, of race accurst” with its forte marking, wide leaps and complicated fioratura was slightly more labored but the return to longer piano phrases in “Oh, let it not in Gath be heard” was again finely nuanced.

Academy Award Material

The title role was a triumph for Austrian baritone Florian Boesch. Handel’s Saul anticipates Verdi’s Nabucco and his ferocious jealousy, manic mood swings and eventual madness requires acting skills of an Olivier-esque level and Boesch was Academy Award material. A physical similarity to Sean Connery didn’t hurt either. His attention to word painting, especially in the recitatives, was exemplary. “Am I then sunk so low” engendered deep empathy and words such as “stripling” were spat out with terrifying venom. “With rage I shall burst his praises to hear” with its one and a half octave range was as solid in the top E naturals and the low B’s. There was suave mellifluousness in “As great Jehovah lives” and “A serpent, in my bosom warm’d” was a rollicking polemic of bile. Even more impressive was Boesch’s singing both Samuel and Saul’s roles in the invocation scene. There was a complete change of timbre depending on the character and Samuel’s ominous low B-flats on “Thou and thy sons shall be with me tomorrow” were sonorous and spooky.

The chorus in all oratorios is particularly important and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir distinguished itself with glorious modulations in dynamics and admirable attention to the markings of the score. Articulation of Jennens’ inspired text however was often sub-optimal.

The first words uttered in “Saul” are “How excellent.”  Not the most opportune accolade for the entire evening, but certainly applicable to much of this memorable performance.

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About the Author

Jonathan Sutherland
Born in Australia, Jonathan Sutherland holds degrees in History and Law from the University of Oxford and diplomas in Music from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Hochschule Mozarteum in Salzburg. He is also an internationally acclaimed concert pianist specializing in the music of the 1930s. Jonathan’s first operatic experience was hearing Maria Callas sing Tosca in Covent Garden and he has since heard performances in all continents of the world including over 60 different productions at the Wiener Staatsoper. He has written for The Australian, Opera Today and The Opera Critic and is a regular contributor to Bachtrack. Jonathan speaks fluent English, French, German and Italian and when not reviewing opera and orchestral concerts, divides his time between the south of France near Nice and Split in Croatia.

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