Handel’s Saul gets another “fully staged” treatment in this recording of a Claus Guth production at the Theater an der Wien in 2021. Inevitably it invites comparison with Barrie Kosky’s Glyndebourne version.. They are quite different though each is very enjoyable n its own way. Those not familiar with the piece might find the introduction to the earlier production helpful as I’m not going to repeat the outline of plot etc here.
Guth’s approach blends minimalism with his often used haut bourgeois imagery (think Messiah and Così fan tutte). There’s a rotating set with three basic elements; a sort of desert of cracked dry mud, a formal dining room and a tiled bathroom where “SAUL” daubed on the wall goes through various transformations. Costuming is basically modern dress though a spear, bow, sling etc all make appearances. Within this basic framework the first act plays out fairly straightforwardly. David appears with bleeding Goliath head to universal acclaim. There’s a rather uncomfortable formal dinner party with the Saul family smartly dressed but David in torn and grubby vest. Merab throws her hissy fit. Michal falls in love with David. Johnathan befriends him. Saul becomes progressively more paranoid and violent. And so on. The basic idea seems to be to present David as a kind of Christ figure within the madness surrounding him.
There are some interesting touches. The chorus is, of course, important and Guth uses it rather differently than Kosky. If for Kosky the chorus might be seen as a scenic element, for Guth it’s clearly a character. It’s still used to make interesting stage pictures but in a different way. There’s stylised movement and a fair amount of “Sellars semaphore”. There’s often action going on in more than one part of the set but it’s hard to judge on the recording what part of the revolving scene the theatre audience could see at any given time.
It starts to get a bit weirder in Act 2. David, now in a sharp white suit, makes out with both girls and Jonathan during “Such haughty beauties”. There’s another very uncomfortable dinner scene. Merab has a very convincing change of heart about David At the end of the act Saul appears to kill Jonathan.
In Act 3 the Witch of Endor turns out to be one of the servants previously waiting at table. Saul channels Samuel and then there’s a striking series of images in the final scene. Saul (by now dead of course) is repeatedly seen walking across the stage. David appears with the Israelites and another woman on his arm (Bathsheba?). Both sisters are distraught. As the scene progresses David becomes more and more unhinged. It’s hard not to see this as prefiguring the Saul-like elements of his future. If that’s not enough we close with David in Saul’s bathroom daubing “DAVID” on the wall as Saul looks on.
So, it’s pretty complicated and there’s a lot of character development to portray (as well as some singing to do!). This is all done very well. Florian Boesch is entirely convincing as Saul. He’s menacing and his mental deterioration is well portrayed. He’s also vocally solid in one of the less flashy roles in the piece. Jake Arditti’s David conveys the Christ like qualities I think Guth is looking for. He often gives off an almost otherwordly stillness and sings really well. He has a lot of typical Handel castrato type florid singing to do and is properly stylish. Probably the vocal star is Anna Prohaska though. Her music is not typically Handelian at all. Rather than calling for flashy runs and ornamentation it often requires sustained beauty of tone, perhaps best exemplified in a really lovely “Author of peace”. She also acts convincingly conveying the changing moods of the volatile Merab. Giulia Semenzato is an excellent foil as Michal. Her singing, more conventionally Handelian, is very stylish and she’s not afraid to ornament. She’s also very convincing as the kinder, les dramatic of the the pair. There’s more excellent Handelian singing from Rupert Charlesworth as Jonathan. The other parts are more than adequately taken and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor is splendid. Most of the cast aren’t anglophones (unlike Glyndebourne) but the English diction is very good indeed; the chorus exceptional in that department. The Freiburger Barockorchester with Christopher Moulds conducting from the keyboard produces an extremely satisfying period sound.
I’m not sure what I think about Tiziano Mancini’s video direction. It was probable a difficult process with all the changing angles of the revolving stage but I did find some of his choices of what to film and from what angle a bit odd. Nevertheless it’s quite watchable. It just left me wondering how much was Guth and how much Mancini. The picture and sound (DTS-HD and stereo) on Blu-ray are very good despite some very dark scenes. There are a few trailers added to the disk and the booklet has a short essay, a synopsis and full track listing. Subtitle options are English, German, French, Korean and Japanese.
I found this a very satisfying performance all round. It’s so different from Kosky’s also excellent Glyndebourne version which, I suppose, goes to show just how much dramatic material can be found in Handel’s oratorios, even though he never envisaged them being staged.
Catalogue number: Unitel Blu-ray 805604