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Christopher Purves as Saul with the Houston Grand Opera chorus.
Christopher Purves as Saul with the Houston Grand Opera chorus.
Photo by Lynn Lane

Hosanna and Hallelujah: HGO's Saul is Special Indeed

Full of scenic wonders, stunning music, magnificent performances, thunderous choruses, and elegant direction, Houston Grand Opera's presentation of George Frideric Handel's commanding oratorio Saul (1739) might just be legendary.

This is the famed Glyndebourne Festival Opera production from 2015, directed by Barrie Kosky, with sets and costumes by Katrin Lea Tag, lighting by Joachim Klein, and choreography by Otto Pichler. It was a huge success, and kudos must to paid to HGO for the insight to remount it here, restaged by Donna Stirrup, David Manion, and Merry Holden.

What an electrifying show this is, mesmerizing and thoroughly provocative throughout. If you thought a dusty antique oratorio couldn't possibly hold your interest, take a gander at what can be done with unflinching intelligence and inspiring stagecraft. This 270-year-old work might be the most modern opera in seasons.

By the 1730s in England, opera seria, Handel's claim to fame, was on the outs with audiences and management. These Italian operas, with their repetitive ABA form and stellar castrati superstar singers, had mummified into a very long evening of concert arias. Although Handel was its undisputed master, opera seria had reached its limits. It was time for a change, and Handel, being a wily entrepreneur as well as a master of theater, quickly recognized that something new was needed.

He was tremendously successful, famous, and wealthy, and he wanted that to continue. He took a gamble and went back to a musical form with which he had previous success in his early career, the oratorio. Acted Biblical subjects were verboten on the London stage, but concert pieces based on Biblical subjects were permitted. So, after Esther, a huge hit in its revival in 1732, he returned to the Bible and revived his career and his bank account. The new work revived his musicality, ushering in wondrous choruses, apt psychological studies, and just plain beautiful music-making.

All his oratorios are ripe for dramatic treatment, but Saul is perfect for it. Superbly adapted from 1 Samuel by Charles Jennens, who would write Messiah, Belshazzar, and Israel in Egypt for the master, what could be more right for the stage than the story of Israel's first king. Abandoned by God for disobeying his commands, Saul, now old and full of guilt, is wracked by jealousy over the strong, young shepherd boy who has defeated Goliath and saved the kingdom. His son, prince Jonathan already has a deep bond with this young warrior. The King James version elegantly alludes to their attraction, “thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”

David is also loved from afar by Saul's daughter Michal, yet scorned by eldest daughter Merab for his non-royal heritage. This is family drama akin to the Greeks, replete with sex, wrath, madness, witchcraft, and an anxious country besieged by war and waiting for a hero.

With extraordinary flair, director Kosky and his team of stage wizards return Handel to the stage with glorious vibrancy. Using what, I suppose, might be called abstract expressionism, Saul comes alive in breathtaking stage pictures. The opening night audience heartily applauded both acts' curtain-up tableaux: a colorful banquet feast and, later, a field of lighted candles. The stage is highly raked with an ashy floor. The large decapitated head of Goliath sits slightly stage left. The Israelites are dressed in Georgian finery, while King Saul, his gray hair long and loose, sports a flowing skirt. Young David is shirtless and bloodied, later sitting on Goliath's head while the courtiers put on his white shirt. It's all very evocative and moderne, but not in that precious “Euro trash” way that, maybe, we pray, has finally had its day.

While the staging never flags and constantly surprises, Handel's music does, too. Eternally inventive, Handel soars with unrelenting melody and unsurpassed orchestration. Listen closely to the harp accompaniment that assuages Saul's fit of madness; the chromatic coloring for the withered Witch of Endor; the trombones and organ in the famous “Dead March” – played for the funerals of Washington, Lincoln, and Churchill; the carillon that rings throughout; or that plangent choral trenody, “Mourn, Israel, mourn.” The baroque is conjured by master organist Ken Cowan, theorbo by Michael Leopold, carillon by Kyle Naig, and harpsichord continuo by HGO maestro Patrick Summers.

The music subtly charts Saul's descent into madness, David's humanity and goodness, Michal's innocence and feisty sexuality, Jonathan's abiding love. When you listen to this score, you're dumbstruck with its completeness, mastery, and sublime rightness. No doubt about it, Handel's with the angels.

So are these singers. Baritone Christopher Purves is incomparable as Lear-like, schizophrenic Saul, acting as well as singing this off-kilter character whose inner demons consume him. When he walks hand-in-hand up the blasted heath with the Witch of Endor, his fate is sealed, but we've already heard his demise in his earlier air, “A serpent in my bosom warm'd” or the stunning accompagnato “Wretch that I am.” Purves envelopes Saul with a vengeance. When he kisses daughter Merab full-on on the mouth, or attempts to kill Jonathan with a rock to the skull, he's doomed. “I am the king,” he sputters at the end of Part I, to an empty stage of cosmic darkness. It's a definitive performance, fully realized, gloriously sung, achingly real.

Last heard last season in Ars Lyrica Houston's stunning Agrippina, another Handel masterwork, countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is a vocal wonder. Caramel and crystalline, his voice could melt the hardest hearts, as his David does. Supple and extremely flexible, his ethereal high tenor superbly matches the young wonder-struck warrior, the beauty of friendship with Jonathan, the stirring love for Michal, the conflicting duty to Saul.

Soprano Pureum Jo, alumna of HGO Studio, is ravishing as Merab. Her diction is clean, her ornamentation nonpareil. Her air, “Author of Peace,” is a masterclass in control, character study, and tonal beauty. Soprano Andriana Churchman, as besotted Michal, is utterly beguiling, dancing like a banshee in erotic abandon, or singing her bargework coloratura with exacting aplomb. Tenor Paul Appleby, veteran of Glyndebourne's production, is a picture-book Jonathan, haunting the background as he trails David, or butting heads with his crazed father, “No, cruel father, no.” Tenor Keith Jameson imbues his multiple roles of Abner, High Priest, Doeg, and Amalekite messenger with the ironic comic timing of a court jester; while tenor Chad Shelton, as all-knowing Witch with sagging breasts, progenitor of Wagner's earth goddess Erda, suckles Saul but dooms him anyway. It's a cameo role, but a startling one in Kosky's staging. We look forward to Shelton's Herod in Salome at HGO in April.

But the star of Saul is the HGO chorus, under director Richard Bado. Freed from Italian opera's set-in-stone structure which eschewed the chorus, Handel now wallowed in the big sound, and he put it everywhere throughout the story. He begins the opera/oratorio with a radiantly triumphant “Epinicion,” glorifying David's victory over Goliath; then uses the mass sound to amplify the drama or act as omniscient narrator or national conscience. Not until Messiah (1742) would the chorus be so predominant a character in the drama. Maestro Summers, in love with the Baroque splendors of Handel, literally dances on the podium as he makes the orchestra gavotte with him. It's a splendid ensemble, and the sound is glorious.

Mystified and amused by his composer, librettist Jennens wrote, “Mr. Handel's head is more full of maggots than ever. I found yesterday in his room a very queer instrument which he calls carillon....'Tis played upon with keys like a harpsichord, & with this cyclopean instrument he designs to make poor Saul stark mad. His second maggot is an organ of 500£ price, which (because he is overstock'd with money) he says, is so contriv'd that as he sits at it he has a better command of his performers than he used to have; so that for the future, instead of beating time, he is to sit as his organ with his back to the audience... I could tell you more of his maggots: but it grows late, and I must defer the rest till I write next; by which time, I doubt not, more new ones will breed in his brain.”

Thank the music gods for Handel's maggots. Saul is full of them, and HGO makes them sing with eternal freshness and power. Saul is exceptional theater. Do not let this wonder pass you by.

Saul continues through November 8 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturday and Tuesday; and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $20-$270.

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