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Review: Barrie Kosky's Saul

Adelaide Festival

2017 Adelaide Festival centrepiece Saul is a feast for the senses, with sumptuous settings and powerful performances.

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Saul is a dramatic oratorio by George Frideric Handel, written in 1738, in collaboration with librettist Charles Jennens. It is based on the First Book of Samuel and tells the story of King Saul’s relationship with his eventual successor David, which veers from admiration to envy and hate.

But Barrie Kosky’s production – produced by the Glyndebourne Opera Festival – does not feel at all like a religious drama. The renowned director claims to be more interested in poetry than politics, and his production of Saul is a visual feast, redolent with metaphor and imagery.

Saul offers ample opportunity for conductor Erin Helyard and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra to display their considerable skills, especially with a prolonged opening of sustained power blended with a fine touch of gentle harpsichord played by Anthony Abouhamad.

The show begins suspensefully as we are kept in the dark for a prolonged period until gradually soft light reveals the giant severed head of Goliath. This stark image is suddenly contrasted with an intensely bright tableau of the entire company, which designer Katrin  Lea Tag has placed on top of a large table upstage adorned with wild boars, swans, food, plants and flowers.

It sets a sumptuous scene. The stage is steeply raked and covered thickly in a black substance that allows the players and dancers to move and tumble freely.

Saul at Adelaide's Festival Theatre. Photo: Tony Lewis / Adelaide Festival

Saul at Adelaide’s Festival Theatre. Photo: Tony Lewis / Adelaide Festival

Baritone Christopher Purves is tremendous as Saul and he presents himself as a king who becomes enraged and finally descends to madness. In depicting Saul’s journey, Kosky creates stage images that reflect the anger, loneliness and despair the king experiences.

When counter tenor Christopher Lowrey, as David, first sings, the audience is mesmerised by the purity of the sound and there is a marvellous stillness in the air.

Kosky’s Saul provides an opportunity for every performer to excel: Mary Bevan, as Merab, and Taryn Fiebig, as Michal, Saul’s daughters, have beautiful voices and a tremendous presence and vitality on stage; Adrian Strooper is excellent as Jonathan, the calming son who tries to bring reason to his father’s troubled mind; Stuart Jackson, as the High Priest, complete with ruff and black fingernails, is an ever-present commentator on the action and his vocal range and power is most impressive; Kanen Breen’s Witch of Endor is a grotesquerie that reflects Saul’s desperate appeal to forces of evil when he feels abandoned by heaven.

The hard-working dancers provide continual entertainment and moments of joy with choreographer Otto Pichler’s humorous fusion of classic and contemporary styles.

Saul highlights the talents of the State Opera chorus, whose members sing, dance, tumble, mime and act throughout the performance. Wisely, Kosky employs the power of the chorus to create numerous images that complement the principal players: there are scenes with hundreds of candles, bodies strewn on a battlefield, choruses of exaltation and moments of mayhem.

The highly credentialed Kosky, who was named Opera Director of the Year in 2014 and who was artistic director of the Adelaide Festival in 1996, has unleashed a fascinating, engaging and powerful production of Saul.  It is the kind of modern interpretative work that we want to see at a festival.

Saul is being presented at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, until March 9, but all sessions have sold out.

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