One of Boston most respected choruses, Back Bay Chorale concludes its 40th anniversary season with Handel’s transitional oratorio-opera, Saul at Sanders Theatre, this coming Saturday. BMInt caught up with Music Director Scott Allan Jarrett and soloist Amanda Forsythe (who plays Michal in the performance) this week to discuss the concert.
BMInt: Tell us something about the Back Bay Chorale. What’s the profile of the typical singer? How many are there? How would you characterize the sound?
Scott Allan Jarrett: The Back Bay Chorale sings with around 110 voices, and can make the full sound of a symphony chorus, from dramatic fortes to stunning pianos. Selected by audition, members come from the greater Boston area from all disciplines and experiences. The chorale is comfortable with more intimate a capella works as well; we recently performed several of MacMillan’s Strathclyde Motets at Emmanuel Church as part of our 40th Anniversary concert.
Who are the soloists?
Surely Sumner Thompson, Amanda Forsythe, and Matthew Anderson are some of this countries finest singers for this repertoire: they bring authority, declamation, and an experienced sophistication to the music. They understand the broader scope of these dramatic works, and make performance come alive in bold and fresh ways. The Chorale is also thrilled to introduce counter-tenor Douglas Dodson and soprano Jacqueline Stucker singing the roles of David and Merab respectively. These are voices perhaps new to Boston audiences, but not for long. Jacqueline’s portrayal of the haughty Merab is one of the vivid musical characterizations in all of Handel, and Doug Dodson’s interpretation of David and his ascent to the throne is equal parts tender, ambitious and deeply personal.
The opening of Act III is one of the most haunting in all of Handel’s output. Set far from his royal court, Saul has ‘fall’n so low’ as to consult the Witch of Endor, who in a rhythmically fractured aria conjures up the ghost of the prophet Samuel. Awakening from his murky celestial sleep, Samuel is accompanied by two bassoons. The instrumental color combined with the richness of the trombones, trumpets and timpani throughout the score, combine to make this Handel’s most opulent score.
It seems like a lot of Handel’s music is being performed in Boston this month—H&H’s Samson, Mark Morris’s Acis and Galatea—how did you end up selecting Saul for this end of season concert?
Saul has long been my favorite of the great Handel oratorios. It’s opulent instrumentation, the intensity of the dramatic pacing, and the sheer excitement that leaps off the page make it, for me, the great unsung hero of Handel’s output. For choirs, so often our repertoire deals with the existential and theological, and though Biblical in subject, Saul is really about human experience and emotion. In fact, this oratorio has much more in common with Shakespeare than the larger choral works of the 19th century. If we could ask him, I’m certain Handel would say that he was an opera composer. And, indeed, Saul includes stage directions, and the sorts of musical characterizations one expects in opera.
Though it’s notoriously not an opera town, Boston has long embraced Handel, both for the superb music as well as the compelling dramatic properties. Because of our venerable music organizations—Handel & Haydn Society, Emmanuel Music, and now in its 40th year, the Back Bay Chorale—Boston music-lovers enjoy the richness of this repertoire season to season, year to year.
So what pushed Handel into this form, and into English?
The short answer is the box office. Economic realities forced Handel to reinvent himself. When ticket sales fell short to support his Italian operas, he found the winning combination when he put his sterling musical pen to paper setting the great stories of the Old Testament. An upright, and perhaps moralistic, public responded enthusiastically to the possibility of enjoyment with a biblical filter.
This is a biblical all-star cast, however David, even though a major player, isn’t the focus of attention. Why do you think he focused elsewhere?
Handel, like Shakespeare, is drawn to the tragic figures—think of King Lear. And with Saul, while many will focus on David’s ascent to the thrown and enduring legacy, Saul is more appealing to Handel for all his tragic flaws. The conflicts surrounding him make for a marvelous libretto written by Charles Jennens, of Messiah fame. And though Handel (and Jennens) are concerned ultimately with Saul as a dramatic subject, all of the other characters are sharply etched and vividly depicted.
Even the women don’t get to play entirely expected roles here—Michal and Merab aren’t exactly fainting maidens. Jennens developed entirely non-biblical characteristics here. Purely for the drama? How was it received?
Everyone, or at least most people, understood these stories in this context to be
first and foremost a ‘fine entertainment,’ and allowed for the possibility of the development or diminishing of certain characters to amplify dramatic effect. The two sisters, Michal and Merab, are perfect examples of characters whom the nineteenth chapter of 1 Samuel mentions only as ancillary to the drama, but whom Jennens and Handel cast in much sharper relief.
You did a big opera concert at the beginning of the season with a review of highlights of works of Verdi and Wagner. Where do you hear Handel’s influence in either of those two composers?
The most direct and best inheritors of Handel’s legacy are likely Haydn and Mendelssohn. The Creation, The Seasons, and Elijah simply wouldn’t exist without Handel’s precedent. And if Verdi and Wagner are the great musical dramatists of the 19th century, surely Handel and Mozart bookend the 18th century. And if art and music provide a window to the soul, few have been able to plumb the musical depths of the human soul as brilliantly and beautifully as Handel.
Interview continues with soprano Amanda Forsyth
Amanda Forsythe is playing the role of Michal, Saul’s younger daughter in this performance of Saul. She recently performed as Zelide in Boston Baroque’s “La Guirlande.” We had a chance to catch up with her at the dress rehearsal.
Have you played the role of Michal in Saul before role before?
Amanda Forsythe: Yes, I’ve sung Michal with the Charlotte Symphony (also under the baton of Scott Jarrett), and across the yard with the Harvard University Choir.
You’ve done quite a lot of Handel oratorios/opera in the last year, including with BEMF in its production of Almira. How does Michal compare to Edilia in that work?
Well, both are princesses, both initially don’t get the husband they’re after, and after a bit of spunky intervention, both end up happily in love. But Michal is much more of the good girl, and this is reflected in her music- none of the fireworks we saw in Almira, but some nice lyricism.
How does Handel seem to you in this transitional world between opera and oratorio?
This is probably the most dramatic Handel oratorio that I’ve sung – it’s plot-driven, like an opera, but the style is very through composed- most of the arias are quite short and the recits serve to move the action along. There are certainly other Handel oratorios (Alexander’s Feast and L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed il Moderato for example) where the story is less dramatic and the arias take a more reflective, da capo format. I think Saul would lend itself very easily to staging, if you could get a baritone who can throw a javelin!
What’s next for you?
In June, I’ll be singing a concert performance of Mozart’s Il Re Pastore with my husband (conductor Edward Jones), then this summer I’ll be singing more Handel! Il Trionfo del tempo in Vancouver, and Teseo at Tanglewood and the Mostly Mozart festival in New York. And for a change of pace, next week I’m recording some lovely contemporary songs for soprano and harp by composer Ken Sullivan.