Saul review – Barrie Kosky slays giant expectations in triumphant return to Adelaide

Modern operatic take on the near-300-year-old dramatic oratorio promises to sear itself upon the imaginations of audiences

The first reveal is of Goliath’s lonely, severed head. The next, grimy, shirtless David, cuts streaked across his back as if he’d been flaying himself with the slingshot now dangling limply by his side. Then yet another layer of the backdrop lifts away, revealing a pristine white table laden with a visual feast of boar, exotic birds, baskets of fruit, towering flower arrangements, and standing above it all a chorus of finery-clad nobles, gawping out at the crowd as dumbly as the dead one-eyed giant.

It is the first of dozens of breathtaking dreamscapes of stillness and sound in Barrie Kosky’s modern operatic take on the near-300-year-old dramatic oratorio Saul, which seared itself upon the imaginations of British audiences at the Glyndebourne Opera House in 2015, and promises to do the same to those fortunate enough to have snared tickets to the Adelaide festival’s sellout season.

Charles Jennens, who penned the words to this Old Testament-inspired epic, famously thought Handel had maggots in his head over the German composer’s use of hallelujahs, and he perhaps wouldn’t have been any more impressed with the State Opera of South Australia chorus gusting them out as they gaily pranced around a freshly-decapitated Goliath.

Mary Bevan and Adrian Strooper in Saul
Mary Bevan as Merab and Adrian Strooper as her brother Jonathan Photograph: Tony Lewis

If the lull that followed in the static middle section of the first act had Adelaide festival co-directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy concerned about their decision to go for baroque in a bid to lure interstate visitors, they needn’t have worried. Once the trembling resentment of the King Lear-esque Saul – played by legendary British baritone Christopher Purves, the Adelaide cast’s lone veteran of the Glyndebourne campaign – finally froths out into literal fits of jealousy over David’s accomplishments, the show hits its stride and never looks back.

Joachim Klein’s harsh lighting glares down upon the black dirt and white faces in haunting fashion – particularly when cast onto the conflicted features of Jonathan, played by Canberra School of Music talent Adrian Strooper, torn between devotion to his father Saul and love of his idol David in such a way that surely would not have been so clearly spelt out in the 18th century original.

Christopher Purves as Saul
As the King Lear-esque Saul, Christopher Purves is Adelaide’s sole veteran of the original 2015 production Photograph: Tony Lewis

Part two descends into more visually deranged territory than the opening, even managing to double the first act’s severed head count. The Festival Theatre stage has surely never felt as sprawling as during a stripped-down Saul’s scramble over the earth and into the bosom of Kanen Breen’s Witch of Endor, who thankfully does not appear at the same time as any of Stuart Jackson’s medley of characters, their respective stage-encompassing presences absorbing all attention in no small part thanks to the costuming of Berliner Katrin Lea Tag.

American countertenor Christopher Lowrey as David and Helpmann Award-winning West Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig as Michal run the full gamut from giddy exaltations to piercing laments, backed by the stately trilling of an Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conducted with mathematical precision by Erin Helyard and featuring a hybrid harpsichord/organ that Handel would have thoroughly approved of, and that Jennens would have dismissed as yet another maggot of an idea.

The revival team directed by Donna Stirrup too deserve adulation for bringing this one back to life, in a biblical return for Barrie Kosky from exile to the City of Churches, a town still reeling from his colourful stint at the helm of the 1996 Adelaide festival. Ten thousand praises are his due, at the least.

Adelaide festival runs until 19 March


Max Opray

The GuardianTramp

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