The Handel and Haydn Society completed its Bicentennial Season with a splendid performance of Handel’s oratorio Saul at Symphony Hall on Sunday afternoon (a repeat of Friday’s opener). Harry Christophers led the Society’s chorus and period orchestra, together with the Young Women’s Chamber Choir and five principal soloists without a weak link or a dull moment. As David Burrows notes, in his biography of Handel, “so well matched in weight are these roles that Saul requires a cast as evenly competent as that for which Handel composed it.” Evenly competent, or more properly, brilliant, describes the soloists, chorus, and orchestra.
When the 1738 oratorio premiered in that year it stood as the composer’s most sumptuously scored work to date, adding three trombones and several more exotic instruments to his customary orchestra. Its three acts, moreover, require close to three hours in an uncut edition such as this one (a single intermission followed act 1). For these reasons the work is performed rarely, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Still, it is astonishing that these were the first complete performances of Saul in the Society’s two centuries, though the Cantata Singers’ undertaking in 1981 may very well have been unabridged.
In her pre-concert “conversation,” Teresa Neff, the Society’s Historically Informed Performance Fellow, described Saul as “absolutely amazing.” Indeed it is, for both the story and the music are exceptional even within Handel’s output. The libretto, by Charles Jennens, skillfully focuses on just a few dramatic moments in the Biblical narrative (from I Sam. 28–30). Unlike his libretto for the later oratorio Messiah, it comprises his own poetry, not a compilation of Bible extracts. For this reason, I wish that the program book, which thankfully gave the complete text, had preserved the original line breaks for the recitatives. These employ the classic iambic pentameter verse of serious English drama.
I mention that trifling point because it is one of very few things that I could criticize about this presentation. Christophers, who clearly knows Saul very well, directed it without pauses for applause between movements, assuring their dramatic continuity. The long sequences of celebratory choruses at beginning and end of some of Handel’s oratorios can threaten to grow tedious. But there was no danger of that Sunday, as Christophers maintained dramatic tension to the end.
It is hard to say whether the chief role is that of Saul, King of the Israelites, or his successor David. Baritone Jonathan Best sounded regal in the title role, and countertenor Iestyn Davies essayed a superb David. Both parts require a full range of expression, from assuredness to despair. Best seemed to me particularly powerful in the sequence of recitatives leading up to Saul’s attempt to murder his own son Jonathan at the end of Act 2. As David, Davies shone lovely where called for in his opening aria (“O king, your favours”), and showed fleet and clean in the coloratura of “Your words, O king.”
Robert Murray sang the more lyrical role of Jonathan with fine lyricism. He can be heard, together with the evening’s two soprano soloists, on Christophers’s recording of Saul with The Sixteen. Elizabeth Atherton sang a very expressive Merab; Joélle Harvey impressed as Michal, particularly for her touching final aria “In sweetest harmony.” Four soloists stepped forward from the choir to perform minor roles; of Jonas Budris, Woodrow Bynum, Bradford Gleim, and Stefan Reed, the last was particularly notable for his dramatic portrayal of the Witch of Endor (a tenor part, following an old Baroque theatrical tradition).
In the extended clapping that followed the concert, the chorus received a particularly enthusiastic and well-deserved surge of applause. They sang clearly and strongly throughout, always responsive to Christophers’s sometimes quite nuanced direction. The latter was cause for one mild reservation; occasionally I sensed an excessively rhetorical shaping of certain choruses, as in the closing number of act 1, “Preserve him for the glory of thy name,” which is a long fugue. Did the last four words (“and the heathen’s shame”) really need to be punched out in every statement of the subject to make their point?
Several novelties delighted us Sunday afternoon as they apparently did for Handel’s original audience. A “carillon,” or keyed glockenspiel, played by Justin Blackwell added color to several numbers, especially the chorus “Welcome, welcome mighty king.” This was sung by the Young Women’s Chamber Choir, who enchanted many in the audience by twirling ribbons as they marched in from the side doors of the house. I must admit, however, that I hardly heard them, as they were facing away from where I was seated on the floor.
I also overheard one of my neighbors in the audience complaining that he could not hear the theorbo. But in fact that lute-type instrument, expertly played by Paula Chateauneuf, was perfectly audible if you could disentangle its sound from that of the harp, with which it was frequently and successfully paired. In fact, the varying instrumentation of the continuo part proved particularly effective (if of uncertain historicity). Playing a Baroque triple harp, Frances Kelly not only accompanied sensitively, but also exhibited expressive rhythmic freedom in the embellished “Symphony” that follows David’s aria “O Lord, whose mercies numberless.” Ian Watson was, as always, a reliable harpsichord continuo player and also a nimble organ soloist in the overture.
The playing by the rest of the orchestra was as fine as I have heard it; the violins particularly stood out for their seemingly effortless execution of many difficult ritornello themes during an almost perfect musical afternoon.