‘Saul’ at Glyndebourne – an utterly mesmerising experience

Earlier in the week, we went to Glyndebourne, to see Handel’s Saul with our old friends Bob and Alison.
    You may think that I had been called in to stand in for one of the soloists, following my debut performance on the stage at our back-stage tour a year ago, but actually no. I guess a rendition of  ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van’ didn’t give a sufficient indication of my operatic potential.

     Neither Philosopher or I had ever been to a performance at Glyndebourne – somehow, our anti-ponciness mechanisms had always kicked in and prevented us actually getting there, despite our love for music, opera etc.
     However, our friends booked us tickets, and off we went.  This was the ‘Tour’ production of Saul, starting at 4pm. We arrived earlier than we expected, just after 3pm, but even so the place was full. Hampers were open, table cloths were spread, wine glasses were out, chicken legs were nibbled. And this was only the Tour, not the Festival. Usual mass of grey-haired middle-class persons. Lots of velvet coats and pashminas. However, we managed to bag a table for our more modest interval snacks.
     Philosopher and I had listened to a CD of Saul in advance.  Both of us were, at best, luke-warm. It seemed a very long sub-Messiah epic with endless repetitive recitatives/arias/choruses, and an incredibly convoluted plot. We expected a few hours of at best, mild entertainment with prolonged stretches where one would either doze or escape into one’s own thoughts. I’d read the rave reviews, but still felt it would be an Emperor’s New Clothes job…..

    Our expectations were totally confounded.
    It was one of the best things I have ever seen.
    I was absolutely riveted from beginning to end, from the moment when the curtain went up to reveal a  bloodstained, muscular David, stripped to the waist, clutching the severed head of Goliath. David is a counter-tenor part, and I did pause to wonder if it is easy to recruit top-flight counter tenors with ripped six-packs….
    It is hard to conceive of the imagination and creativity that generated such a dynamic, exciting production from such apparently dry old material – a concert oratorio not written to be staged.
    We were alternately intrigued, amused, thrilled, scared, moved almost to tears, frightened and shocked. The action on stage explored love between men and women, love between men and men, father-child relationships, the collapse and defeat of regimes and nations.
    Above all though, the tragic figure of Saul himself, brought down and tipped into madness by his fatal flaw, envy. Saul was magnificent, another King Lear, raving, then abandoned and alone, in a bleak grey wasteland. Eventually, he resorts to communing with the darkest underworld – the horribly grotesque Witch of Endor, who appeared as a skinny old man with enormous saggy breasts (no, they were false).

     Another strand was the cycle of life – the production started in high summer colour, feasting, rejoicing, the old king in charge, and the gauche, traumatised young future king on the fringes of the action. The cycle turned to grey and then black, as the action got darker, and then the old king was dead. Towards the end, light began to return, and the new young king walked confidently towards us down the stage. He was dressed in a similar costume to Saul, and somehow, you knew that in time, he too would die….
     All the cast, including the chorus, acted brilliantly and sang exceptionally well. The acoustics were great. The costumes were fabulous, as was the use of colour and light. The ornate banquet, horrible hands coming out of a table top to torment Saul, the stage floor covered in flickering candle lights, the dark battlefield littered with corpses, the vibrant dancers…..
      I couldn’t fault any of it. It was, quite simply, Total Class.
     These photographs all come from the internet.
     Well, for us, we’re hooked now. We’ll have to go again…..
      Thanks to Bob and Alison for getting us there.


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