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Another dazzler from Tafelmusik

Koerner Hall
02/21/2014 -  & February 22, 23, 2014
George Frideric Handel: Saul
Peter Harvery (Saul), Daniel Taylor (David), Rufus Müller (Jonathan, Witch of Endor), Sherezade Panthaki (Michal), Joanne Lunn (Merab), David Roth (Doeg, Abner, High Priest, Ghost of Samuel), Paul Ziadé (Amalekite)
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir, Ivars Taurins (conductor & director)

I. Taurins (© Sian Richards)

This wonderful performance was a revelation, giving us a stunning view of a work that reveals Handel as a master of dramatic understatement as well as the supreme master of the glorious and processional.

The oratorio’s story begins with the Israelite rejoicing after David’s defeat of Goliath. King Saul offers David the hand of his elder daughter, Merab, and she haughtily rejects someone so low-born. Her sister, Michal, is happy to be David’s bride, however, and their brother, Jonathan, forms a passionate attachment to the young hero. David’s wild popularity excites the envy of Saul, who tries to kill David, fails, then orders others to do it. In desperation, Saul consults the Witch of Endor, a sacrilegious act that brings retribution when both he and Jonathan are killed in battle. After scenes of mourning, David is proclaimed the new king of the Israelites.

The work begins with a jaunty overture, fanfares, and a chorus of celebration, ending with hallelujahs. (It’s the Handel we know so well.) We quickly get into the drama and become acquainted with the main characters. The first to make an impression is Michal, Saul’s "nice" daughter. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that a singer has “bell-like tones”, but this is perfectly apt for Sherezade Penthaki and the character she portrays. Daniel Taylor sounds a bit disembodied as David, but his usual sweetness of tone comes through. One wishes he weren't so glued to the book.

Rufus Müller excels as Jonathan, maintaining a rapturous tone that doesn’t preclude expressiveness. Later on he also voices the Witch of Endor, using a menacing sotto voce. Joanne Lunn tears into the role of Merab, Saul’s nasty daughter. Later in the work when she sees how unhinged her father has become, the character changes tack and Miss Lunn vividly carries this through.

Throughout all this, Peter Harvey maintains a dramatic focus in the title role, a character in regal command at first then increasingly angry and desperate. This might sound a bit odd, but it must be a marvelous role to plunge into! Two members of the chorus, David Roth and Paul Ziadé ably performed supporting roles.

The star of the show, though, was really conductor Ivars Taurins who brought out all the diversity contained in the score. The “symphonies” (Handels’ term for orchestral sections) could stand alone as a fascinating suite. The “Dead March” is chillingly bleak in its spareness and use of the doleful trombones (by comparison Wagner’s funeral music for Siegfried seems overblown). The ghost of Samuel appears to some very spooky passages which seem to foreshadow what Berlioz composed for a similar scene in Les Troyens.

Within the 29-member orchestra Charlotte Nediger on harpsichord, organ and “carillon” (celesta) stands out, as does Julia Seager-Scott for her harp solo. The 25-member choir was up to its usual high standards; the hearty “Welcome, welcome, mighty king!” is a precursor to “See the conquering hero comes” in Judas Maccabeus, composed eight years after Saul. More subtle, with the chorus divided into sections, is “Envy, eldest born of hell” as the chorus comment on Saul’s decline.

In short, the work is full of musical surprises, all of them good ones.

To keep the running time (with one intermission) under three hours, there are some cuts. A full uncut performance would necessitate a second interval and result in something close to four hours - daunting for both audience and budget. Still, given the high quality of the singing, it seems a shame to miss Jonathan’s air “Birth and fortune I despise”, Michal and David’s first duet “O fairest of ten thousand fair”, and David’s “Brave Jonathan his bow never drew”. With a performance of such quality one can’t help wishing for more.

Michael Johnson



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