Thursday, August 27, 2015

"Saul" - one of the most original and brilliant experiences in the musical theatre you'll ever have

The diversity of the musical theatre is one of the delights of the Arts world and the old division between "popular" (often a Broadway musical) and "serious" (Opera) has largely broken down. Is "West Side Story" less serious than "Carmen" - or less musically brilliant? Glyndebourne has mostly eschewed "crossover" which is a bit of a shame. I'd love to see them tackle a Sondheim - "A Little Night Music" perhaps, or "Sunday in the Park with George" . One day maybe? For now we have some of the most accessible productions of "serious" opera which, for me this season, has included a Carmen revival, a Ravel double bill and an engaging and beautifully sung and staged production of Mozart's "Die Entf├╝hrung aus dem Serail". But the work that has really generated critical acclaim this year has been Handel's "Saul". 

The staging of oratorios is not uncommon but for me this was a first. It isn't Opera nor is it conventional musical theatre at all. Handel wrote it to be sung by soloists and a choir in a concert hall or a church. But the story is so vividly visual that it has been staged from time to time and this year Glyndebourne engaged Conductor Ivor Bolton and Australian Director Barrie Kosky to create a new production. With artists of the quality of Lucy Crowe (Merab), Christopher Purves (Saul) and that most musical of counter-tenors Iestyn Davies as David a treat seemed to be in store. And it was!

The staging is spectacular. The first Act full of colour, dance and gaiety - there is nothing reverential or holy. The second Act is sombre and more monochrome. I felt that the production in its special effects and pace had to some extent evolved from the best of the West End or Broadway musical - Les Miserables or Phantom or Miss Saigon. This is meant to be a compliment for if you combine Glyndebourne's in house resources for design, costumes and props with staging of the spectacular impact of a Les Mis you will get an extraordinary even unique experience. And you do. The opening of the second Act with Glyndebourne's large stage initially empty save for a thousand or more candles (real ones!) flickering in the dark takes the breath away.

The principals were superb and the Glyndebourne chorus sang and acted magnificently. For all the performers it was a remarkable feat of memory alone - this is a long production and of course at a concert they would have the music and words in front of them! There was also a talented and funny group of dancers - another distant nod maybe to the ballet and dance sequences in Musicals like Carousel or Oklahoma? This production of "Saul" transcends genre and defies categorisation. It is wonderfully sung - a presquisite obviously - and the "Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment" , a Glyndebourne favourite, were in top form. Glyndebourne is taking the production on tour and if you can I urge you to see it. 


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