The Back Bay Chorale with orchestra and soloists under the baton of Scott Allen Jarrett convened in Sanders Theater last night to offer up Handel’s oratorio Saul. For me the concert was an emotion-laden introduction to this powerful work.
Jarrett’s program note situates Saul (HWV53) in the context of the composer’s other works. Composed in 1738, this “is the pivotal work signifying Handel’s career change from opera composer to oratorio composer,” thetransition bringing the conventions of Baroque opera to an oratorio. The text departs from the book of Samuel: to that tale of political intrigue in the court of ancient Israel, librettist Charles Jennens added a story of sibling rivalry and jealousy to match Saul’s own feelings toward David. The squabbling between Michal and Merab, Saul’s daughters, mirror Saul’s tortured relationship with the lowborn hero David, and also the familial tension between Saul and his son Jonathan. The plot has the hallmarks of opera, and the work abounds in musical word-painting, heightening the drama. For this performance the soloists, with minimal blocking, used gesture and facial expression to further communicate. Saul sang from the floor when he visited the Witch of Endor, and the Ghost of Samuel sang from the balcony. The piece was performed more like a concert version of an opera, and worked very well in such a presentation.
Although Saul is the titular character, musically Saul really is an ensemble work. Sumner Thompson (baritone) sang the title role, bringing the gravity, the haughty demeanor, the rage and jealousy and crippling madness of this character to life. Matthew Anderson (tenor) expressed the conflict between filial piety and friendship, obedience and doing what is right, in the role of Jonathan. Douglas Dodson (countertenor) gave a beautiful rendition of David. The role is often perceived as flat but Jarrett makes a case for the difficulty of being the outsider at court. Dodson’s performance was not flat; his aria, “Impious wretch, of race accurst!” was an exercise in barely controlled wrath and modeled the fury, the power, of a countertenor crossed. Anderson and Dodson together captured the friendship between Jonathan and David, the tenderness and affection evident in their voices and the glances. Amanda Forsythe (soprano) sang the role of Michal, the younger sister who loves David, excels in empathy, and wants to make all well in her world. Her voice captured the sweetness and sincerity of this role. To the role of Merab, the elder sister, Jacquelyn Stucker (soprano) brought the haughty demeanor and glacial mien of a class-conscious snob. With clipped enunciation and precise delivery she conveyed the spirit of Merab’s character in a chilling musical performance. Patrick T. Waters (tenor) sang the Witch of Endor, making of his scene a study in shrewd political analysis, while Joseph Leopold sang Doeg, a court toady, Daniel Mahoney the Amalekite, and Claire McCarthy the Israelitish Woman and High Priest. For the Ghost of Samuel Irvin Heifetz delivered with vengeance the harsh words of the dead ruler. This was a refined and impassioned reading of Saul, a treat to hear.
Throughout, the chorus commendably rose to the musical challenges. Its roles were varied, sometimes supportive, sometimes voicing a collective conscience, sometimes intoning morality and enforcing societal norms; their singing was consistently polished. In a few spots I heard extra sibilants, although that is well-nigh impossible to avoid in such lines as “Cease in human breasts to dwell” (opening chorus of Act II).
The orchestra had many moments to shine. Saul contains a lengthy sinfonia overture in four movements, as well as substantial interludes elsewhere. Famously the score calls for a carillon to signal the onset of Saul’s madness; in this performance a combination of celeste, glockenspiel, and orchestra bells was deployed. The musicians, many familiar from Emmanuel Music, A Far Cry, Handel and Haydn Society, and other local ensembles, gave solid performances with great dynamic range and smart phrasing. From time to time I did notice a lack of tight cohesion in the ensemble, which is not surprising with a freelance group.
While this was billed as an abridged performance, the concert, with intermission, ran to almost three hours. The text printed in the program book (which serves for the entire season so presumably was printed several months ago) was abridged in acts II and III, with omissions in at least three places. Where the sung text was not printed, many of us were distracted trying to find our place and/or decipher the meaning of the Jennens’s 18th-century rhyming verse, the requisite tortured syntax and resultant action.
In the end, I wonder if the planned abridgment didn’t happen. It would have been nice to have been notified, especially since there was already an insert about tenor Matthew Anderson’s substitution for Nicholas Phan in the role of Jonathan. (For the curious backstory click here).