Opera Reviews
25 February 2024
Untitled Document

Saul is brought vividly to life in Göttingen

by Catriona Graham

Handel: Saul
International Handel Festival Göttingen

May 2019

Markus Brück (Saul)

With the Stadthalle Göttingen closed for refurbishment, the oratorio in the International Handel Festival programme is relocated to the St Blasius Kirche some 38 km away in Hannoversche Münden. It’s a good choice – the acoustic is great in the wide-bodied church.

Saul is based on the first book of Samuel. It starts just after David has felled Goliath and recounts the disintegration of Saul from envy. It is all there in the music but the facial expressions of the singers in this performance bring it vividly to life.

The NDR Chor set the standard in the opening chorus, rejoicing "How excellent thy name, O Lord".  Then Mary Bevan singing Saul’s daughter Michal joins in to drool over David’s prowess. Saul greets him with open arms and commands him to stay at court. Piously, David demurs – he is nicely brought up and minds his manners – and Jonathan’s friendship is sealed.

Merab, the other daughter is less impressed; the glance Sophie Bevan throws at her love-struck sister says more than a whole aria. Being sisters in real-life, there is that extra dynamic and the looks they exchange are less acting than a lifetime’s experience. Their voices are similar, but clearly distinct – it’s a delightful pairing.

David is young, handsome, cocky – Eric Jurenas proves this by milking the acoustic on his highest notes – and Saul soon tires of the adulation David receives. Markus Brück’s rich voice makes a strong contrast with the four young people around him; he also imbues it with a snarl without losing tone for a second. The flute intro to Michal’s aria "Fell rage and black despair possess’d" is delicately played by Kate Clark.

The bass line stomps though the chorus "Envy, eldest born of hell", the FestspielOrchester Göttingen and the NDR Chor showing their class in not being intimidated by the tympani. There’s some nice ornamentation in David’s aria "Such haughty beauties", before Brück’s Saul provides a masterclass in two-faced sneering. He’s hoping the Philistines will do his dirty work for him and kill David, who will be leading the Israelite army. This prompts a couple of love-duets for which Jurenas’ and Mary Bevan’s voices are well-balanced.

Meanwhile, even Merab reckons Saul is Going Too Far and " Author of peace" is sung sweetly, in good contrast to the jolly symphony leading into the feast at which Brück is his sneering two-faced best and indulges in the best-ever hissy fit. By this time, he needs advice – "Wretch that I am" displays an immense emotional range - from the Witch of Endor. So far, Raphael Höhn has been singing the High Priest with a very straight bat and nicely rounded sound. Now he is nasal and screechy, bending notes all over the place and sliding around. It is brilliant.

And so Saul dies, and so comes the Dead March, followed by the elegies. The chorus "Mourn, Israel" is beautiful, especially the silence in the general pause.  In the High Priest’s "Oh, let it not in Gath be heard", Höhn is singing straight again. Merab’s ‘From this unhappy day’ is lingeringly sung, and the dying fall is heart-rending as is Michal’s "In sweetest harmony".

In David’s lament for Jonathan the chorus has an amazing ringing tone, before the High Priest raises spirits in time for the final chorus. Ah, the NDR Chor – fabulous sound, and the choral fugues which end each act are so crisp and clear. Four men of the chorus take the minor roles, in addition to Keunhyung Lee as Abner.

And the FestspielOrchester Göttingen with the multi-tasking Laurence Cummings. The score asks for a harpsichord sitting on top of a chamber organ, from which to conduct, and the organ solos are fiendish, with way too many notes. There is also the carillon – or tubalcain, as Handel called it – with its tinkling bell sounds, not to mention the trombones and trumpets. It’s a tremendous sound and yet the strings and woodwind are as delicate in the gentler passages as one could wish.

Text © Catriona Graham
Photo © Alciro Theodoro da Silva
Support us by buying from amazon.com!