Arts & Events

New: Handel’s SAUL: A Sordid Tale of A Deranged King of Israel

James Roy MacBean
Tuesday April 09, 2019 - 08:31:00 PM

Currently, Philharmonia Baroque is performing Handel’s 1638 oratorio Saul throughout the Bay Area. I attended the Saturday, April 6 performance at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. In addition to a Sunday matinee, April 7 at the same local venue, Saul will be given Friday, April 12 at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre and on Saturday, April 13 at First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto.  

Set to a libretto by Charles Jennens, who would later provide Handel with the libretto for The Messiah, Handel’s Saul tells the story of the first king of the united monarchy of Israel and Judah, c. 1050 BCE. Saul may be king, but he worries that the popularity of young David, who has just slain the giant Philistine Goliath, may pose a threat to Saul’s kingship. Becoming ever more fixated on David as a threat, Saul, who at first presents David to the Israelite people as their savior and offers his own eldest daughter, Merab, to be David’s bride, quickly becomes so unhinged at the popularity David receives from the Israelites, that he hurls his javelin at David in the first of several unsuccessful attempts by Saul to have David killed. Things go swiftly downhill from there. It is a sordid tale, indeed.  

To complicate matters, Saul’s son, Jonathan, establishes a passionate friendship with young David, one that has more than a tinge of a homoerotic affair. When Saul then seeks to enlist Jonathan in a plot to kill David, this puts enormous stress on Jonathan. In a further complication, Saul’s eldest daughter, Merab, who is announced as David’s bride-to-be, snobbishly rejects David as being too low-born to become her future husband. Meanwhile, Merab’s younger sister, Michal, develops a crush on David and secretly hopes to become his bride. This, in a nutshell, is the plot of this sordid story. Fortunately, it is told in splendid music by George Friederick Handel. 

For this presentation of the oratorio Saul, Philharmonia Baroque’s Music Director Nicholas McGegan assembled a splendid cast. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was billed in pre-performance hype as the superstar lead in the role of David. However, in spite of how well Cohen sang in this role, I’m not at all convinced that he should have been given top billing. At least equally as great, it seems to me, was bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Saul. In navigating the all-too-quick emotional changes Saul goes through, Daniel Okulitch was vocally robust and dramatically convincing 

In the role of David, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen had it relatively easy. His character is a good-guy throughout. Only once did David indulge in some of the same paroxysms of rage that brought about the downfall of Saul; and this was when, informed by a messenger of the death of Saul in battle against the Amalekites, David arrogantly orders the messenger to be killed.  

As I said at the outset, it’s a sordid tale, full of Hebrews fighting non-Hebrews and Hebrews fighting among themselves. However, it’s a tale that aught to pose questions, among other things, about the origins of the current Israeli war against the Palestinians. In short, this sordid tale goes way back in history and yet continues in ever more aggravated fashion into the present day. 

In the role of Merab, soprano Yulia Van Doren was sweet-voiced, even when dismissing the low-born David as her future-husband. Throughout, Van Doren sang with great clarity of tone. Later, her character had second thoughts and began to hold David in greater respect. As Michel, soprano Sherezade Panthaki, was outstanding. Her command of elaborate coloratura passages is almost beyond belief. Yet Panthaki can also be softly sweet-voiced when the libretto calls for it. Tenor Aaron Sheehan was excellent as Jonathan, a role that calls for a balance between allegiance to a father (Saul) and allegiance to a beloved friend (David). In several small roles, tenor Jonathan Smucker ably handled the roles of Abner, the Witch of Endo, and the Amalekite messenger. Likewise, bass-baritone Christian Pursell was in fine voice as Doeg and the ghost of the prophet Samuel.  

Orchestrally, this was for Handel a huge instrumental enterprise. Three trombones, a harp, a solo organ, and a “carillon” provided by a keyboard glockenspiel, were all part of Handel’s orchestration. Not to mention two huge kettledrums used in the instrumental “symphonies” that accompany scene breaks as well as music such as the famous funeral march, during which a solo flute, played here beautifully by Janet See, mourns the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. Likewise, there are ample opportunities for the organ to take the lead, played here by Jory Vinikour, most notably, in the Act II symphony that closes Scene 5. Jory Vinikour also doubled on glockenspiel. Bass-baritone Christian Pursell was excellent in the roles of Doeg and the ancient prophet Samuel, singing forcefully in each of his roles. Throughout this oratorio, conductor Nicholas McGegan kept things moving at a brisk pace. Though Handel’s Saul runs a bit long, McGegan’s sense of pace made it run smoothly.