November 13, 2004

'Tis The Season

Oratorio season begins with Händel's Saul


Georg Friedrich Händel
Saul, Oratorium HWV 53


RIAS Kammerchor
Concerto Köln
René Jacobs - Dirigent

Micha: Rosemary Joshua
Merab: Emma Bell
David: Lawrence Zazzo
Jonathan: Jeremy Ovenden
Saul: Gidon Saks

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'Tis The Season

Oratorio season begins with Händel's Saul

by Lydia Steier

His fourth oratorio in English, Georg Friedrich Händel's Saul, was first performed on January 16th, 1739 at the King's Theatre at London's Haymarket. It marked the first of his collaborations with the poet Charles Jennens, who based his libretto for Saul on the old testament book of Samuel, expanded with thematic motives from later interpretations like Abraham Cowley's Davideis and Roger Boyle's The Tragedy of King Saul. Whilst thematically quite distant from the staid affirmations of godly goodness found in the perennially popular Messiah, the taste for Händelian oratorio enjoys the same time frame as Weihnachtsmärkte, an early-season example being the Saul presented by the RIAS Kammerchor and Concerto Köln in the great hall of the Philharmonic.

A whirlwind synopsis: the oratorio documents the entrance of David into the House of Saul via marriage to Princess Michal, including King Saul's various attempts to have the hero killed. It continues on to the revelation of calamity by Samuel's ghost, adapted much later by Benjamin Britten as a short scena called Saul and the Witch at Endor. The oratorio closes after the House of Saul falls to the Philistines at Galboa, precipitating David's rise as the new King of the Israelites.

Under the baton of Rene Jacobs, the Concerto Köln was in prime form. Sounding consistently delicious, the ensemble's string section was a constant source of delight, with perfectly articulated lines, diminuendos that faded into thinnest air, measured bombast in strident sections, and the ability to sound like a much larger or smaller ensemble, even during tutti playing. Occasionally eyebrows could be raised at the sometimes odd tandem playing by the group's trombone section. In general, Concerto Köln's winds and brass provided eloquent detail throughout the evening, particularly in the "Saul and the Witch at Endor" section, where they employed onomatopoeic note-bending. Massimiliano Toni competently and gracefully lead the continuo section, supported by the ever-appropriate pluckings of lutenist Shizuko Noiri. Most unexpected were sections of extended orchestral support written for the celesta-like carillon. Harpist Mara Galassi delivered a lengthy and very exposed solo interlude with a vulnerable, halting loveliness.

The evening's soloists were a mix of Britons, Americans, and one Israeli (in the title role). Perhaps for this reason, Saul's complex text was, for the most part, clearly delivered, particularly in the singing of Rosemary Joshua as Michal. At the beginning of this evening, her first aria, An Infant Raised, sounded tight and unstable. This may have been due to nerves, as Joshua's performance blossomed throughout the rest of her performance, exhibiting fantastic control, and a real ability to "act through the voice". The opposite curve was evident (to a lesser degree) in the performance of countertenor Lawrence Zazzo as David. At the beginning of the evening, for example in the aria Such Haughty Beauties, Zazzo produced a control on high notes that seemed quite impossible for a falsettist, and would certainly be difficult for any mezzo soprano. It is a very special voice, dipping down into lower registers without switching into chest resonance. However, as the concert progressed, Zazzo's silky countertenor showed signs of fatigue.

Emma Bell and Jeremy Ovenden (Merab and Jonathan, respectively) gave strong performances. Bell's voice demonstrates the spread "toothiness" in higher registers also found in Renee Fleming and Kiri Te Kanawa. While nearly always breathtaking, Bell occasionally loses control on extended "money notes", creating an abrupt end to otherwise solid ascending figures. Ovenden's performance was spectacularly articulated, using word emphasis to really wonderful dramatic ends. His light, shimmering tenor perfectly suited the role of Saul's doomed son and David's confidante.

The young American tenor Michael Slattery was rather unimpressive as the High Priest. His slight, boyish comportment made him look oddly out of place on the Philharmonic stage; he also exhibited limited vocal power. His sliding, nasal, and very funny performance as the Witch at Endor, however, was a decisive highlight of the evening. Gidon Saks was certainly a competent Saul, obviously taking great pains to "act" the part, in movement and in singing. Saks's bass-baritone is beefy and spread, rich in general color, but lacking slightly in a real tonal core. It would be interesting to hear this role sung by a smaller, more focused and agile voice.

The RIAS Kammerchor gave a fantastic performance, yielding male soloists for small roles in the drama as well. What occasionally lacked in diction was more than made up for in eloquent articulation and clever manipulations in timbre and texture.