Saul, Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London

Once deemed a work of deep, if morbid, piety, Handel's Saul has been drafted into the debate about its composer's sexuality. Handel's private life remains undocumented, but his depiction of the close, homoerotic friendship between David and his brother-in-law, Jonathan, is now frequently cited as proof that he was gay.

In some respects this fudges the issue. The exact nature of Handel's orientation may never be known, though his range of sexual and emotional understanding is uncommonly wide. One of the crucial points about Saul, however, is that the relationship between David and Jonathan is a positive force in a complex work that is both intensely spiritual and profoundly tragic.

At its centre lies the conflict between David, the holy warrior and singer of psalms, and Saul, the Israelite king. The latter's failure to comprehend David's sacred nature results in a pathological jealousy that leads him to destroy his family, abandon God and drag his country into disaster.

In this performance, with Paul McCreesh conducting the Gabrieli Consort and Players, the central tragedy was underscored by powerful performances from Andreas Scholl and Neal Davies. Scholl's unearthly singing of David's music afforded us insights into a spiritual world to which Davies's imploding Saul could only react with scorn. When Scholl sang of God's ability to "heal the wounded soul", time stood still - but Davies reminded us that there are some wounds that God can never heal. His performance was a descent into emotional hell, culminating in the horror of his blasphemous summons to the Witch of Endor.

McCreesh, meanwhile, was alive to the score's every emotional shift, from the grand ceremonials with which it opens to the shattering grief at its close. He was also strong on the flashes of wit that throw the central drama into sharper relief.

Here, he was backed by two great performances from Deborah York and Susan Gritton as Saul's daughters, whom David throws into emotional confusion as well. York trilled out her desire for him with sensual abandon. Gritton was cast against type, bitchily spitting out coloratura in contempt for David's plebeian origins. Mark Padmore, as Jonathan, sang with his usual elegance, though he did not always quite capture the character's youthful impulsiveness.

Overall, this was an outstanding achievement. Many Handelians have claimed that Saul is to music what King Lear is to drama. Finally, they have been proved right.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Benvenuto Cellini, Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London.

Andrew Clements

19, Aug, 2003 @10:15 AM

Prom 60: BBCNOW/ Hickox, Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall

Andrew Clements

06, Sep, 2003 @1:59 PM

Berlin PO/Rattle, Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London

Andrew Clements

02, Sep, 2003 @1:02 PM

RPO/Gatt, Royal Albert Hall, London

3 stars Royal Albert Hall, London

Tom Service

13, Aug, 2003 @11:46 AM

Dido and Aeneas, Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London

Erica Jeal

04, Sep, 2003 @2:22 PM

A look back on this year's Proms

The sell-outs, the mediocre premieres, the concerts that threatened to last for ever... Andrew Clements looks back on this year's Proms.

Andrew Clements

15, Sep, 2003 @11:43 AM

True grit

She has been called the greatest living opera singer. And how many people who can lay claim to that accolade have lived in a Mexican jail and battled against a life-threatening illness? Lorraine Hunt Lieberson tells Charlotte Higgins about Handel, yoga and the benefits of beetroot.

Charlotte Higgins

08, Aug, 2003 @1:36 AM

Prom 11: Blue Peter: Magical Journeys, Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London

Lyn Gardner

28, Jul, 2003 @11:41 AM

Article image
Burned by Byron

Why were so many composers drawn to the poetry of a mad, bad, dangerous English aristocrat? By Tim Ashley.

Tim Ashley

01, Aug, 2003 @10:09 AM

LPO/ Wigglesworth, Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London

Martin Kettle

29, Aug, 2003 @10:43 AM