Adelaide Festival

Festival Review: Saul

Taken from the First Book of Samuel, Handel’s Saul tells the story of the first King of Israel and his fractured relationship with his eventual successor David.

Presented by Glyndebourne Festival Opera; Adelaide Festival; The State Opera Of South Australia; The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra; and the Adeladie Festival Centre
Reviewed 3rd March 2017

For such a high profile event as the Adelaide Festival’s headline production, Saul’s provocativeness and extravagance deemed it a risky choice, especially with the often controversial Barrie Kosky as Director. Taken from the First Book of Samuel, Handel’s Saul tells the story of the first King of Israel and his fractured relationship with his eventual successor David, a detestation that ultimately leads to the downfall of the monarch. The first thing the audience discerns when the curtain is raised after the overture is the giant Goliath’s bloodied, detached head. An early high-point, difficult to sustain but Saul didn’t disappoint: in fact it eclipsed all expectations.

This Glyndebourne Festival Opera production was a visual feast. The stage was raked, with a black sand-like substance blanketing it entirely, providing a unique setting for this blockbuster to be played out.  Costumes, designed by Katrin Lea Tag, were spectacular. The State Opera Chorus were fitted with striking period dresses in a variety of muted colours. Lea Tag’s properties were also of high quality, and their vibrancy striking. For the first half of the show, two mammoth trestle tables, adorned with white table-cloths were the pinnacle set pieces. At the commencement of the act, these tables were furnished with a brilliant banquet, with a flamboyantly-animated State Opera Chorus entirely motionless upon them. This was so contrasting to the macabre scene at the forefront of the stage, that it spurred a vast assortment of reactions from the opening night crowd. Joachim Klein’s lighting design complimented the on-stage energy with simple and effective washes.

As King Saul, Christopher Purves’ descent into madness was rivetingly heartbreaking, and with a vivid vocal power, Purves dominated the audiences attention whenever he was on stage. Purves’ strength of character was equally matched by Christopher Lowrey as David. Lowrey’s succulent counter-tenor tones were spine-tingling, and his prince-like nobility mixed with a pure despondency was hauntingly beautiful, especially in his enchanting rendition of ‘Mourn Israel’. Mary Bevan and Taryn Fiebig as Saul’s daughters, Merab and Michal respectively, sang their roles with an effortless finesse. Adrian Strooper as Saul’s son Jonathon, Stuart Jackson as the ostentatious High Priest, and Kanen Breen as the outrageous Witch of Endor rounded out the all-star cast. With the accomplished hand of Erin Helyard as conductor, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra underscored the opera with outstanding precision.

Whilst this Glyndebourne Festival Opera production starred some of the worlds best opera-singers and baroque musicians, Saul also featured an abundance of South Australian talent, including the chorus of the State Opera of South Australia, and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. The State Opera chorus were very much the backbone of this production, rising to the arduous task admirably. They sung Handel’s demanding score with a resonating clarity and infectious energy.

Saul also featured a troupe of six dancers who danced Otto Pichler’s garish choreography to great effect. In fact, the choreography’s quirkiness was so distinct from the otherwise disconsolate characters that is aroused hearty chuckles from the audience.

Saul was an exhilarating night at the theatre, and once again the Adelaide Festival and the State Opera of South Australia are providing audiences with world-class entertainment.

Reviewed by Ben Francis

Photo credit: Tony Lewis

Venue:  Adelaide Festival Centre
Season:  3rd March – 9th March
Duration:  3hours and 25 minutes (including interval)
Tickets:  $60 – $230


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