Yesterday I finally checked out Boston’s famed early music scene by going to the Handel and Haydn Society’s performance of Handel’s Saul in Symphony Hall. I sat behind a gentleman with a score and in front of another gentleman who beforehand mansplained the oratorio by invoking Malcolm Gladwell and then during proceeded to sing along at various points in Act 1.* So I guess I don’t know quite what to make of Boston early music audiences yet.
Anyway. Proper historically informed orchestras are as rare as hen’s teeth in the US and I was happy to hear a very credible one. The Handel and Haydn orchestra has a rather glassy, close to vibrato-free sound (which you might think is a given but among current groups really is not). The winds are quite accurate and, despite there being quite a few of them in this piece, not too loud. Most importantly, it’s a real orchestra that doesn’t sound like a pickup group. Nor did the smallish but substantial-sounding chorus, whose sound blended very nicely.
Conductor and music director Harry Christophers’s priority seemed to be sheer tonal beauty. Sometimes he would draw out a phrase to luxuriate, ridiculous length (most obviously the sigh motive on “virtue” in Jonathan’s first air). Tempos tended toward the slower side side. Choruses were beautifully layered and seemed to stop time. While Saul has a lot of beautifully mournful music, particularly around the last half hour (from the famous “Dead March” on), it’s also a very dramatic piece with madness, love, etc., and frequently receives full staging, for example in this Glyndebourne production last summer.
But operatic oratorio wasn’t on the menu here. I must admit that I found Christophers’s placid approach rather bland and at times even boring. There wasn’t much dynamic variation or even differentiation of articulation. Despite a ton of energetic gestures from the concertmaster rhythmic life was often lacking, and I missed the kinds of accents and momentum you can get in this music. There are rage arias here (Saul in particular), a brief appearance by a witch in Act 3, and heroic stuff too, but everything bubbled along at a medium temperature. OK, I’m one of those people who likes René Jacobs, which means I’m a glutton for sforzandos, weird tempo changes, and talkative continuos, and in comparison this Saul was very plain.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is Christophers conducting “Let the bright Seraphim” from Handel’s Samson (I believe the soprano is Lynne Dawson).
In comparison, here is another recording of the same piece, this one sung by Karina Gauvin and conducted by Alexander Weimann.
Christophers and Dawson are very pretty and tidy, but to me, Gauvin and Weimann are sparkier, more alive, and way more interesting. Christophers’s school of Handel certainly has a long tradition, most particularly in the UK (from which almost the entire cast of this performance hailed), but as an opera person I gravitate towards a more operatic approach.
Based on audience response, Iestyn Davies as David stole the show. His countertenor is of the ethereal, angelic type (like the orchestra, very little vibrato), and while David is a heroic character Handel gives him a lot of lyrical music. Davies’s voice has wonderful presence in Symphony Hall: light and clear but absolutely filling the space like none of the rest of the cast. This puts him in tune with Christophers, but he also has a sense of character and drama that supplied some of what was otherwise lacking–perhaps he got it from being in that Glyndebourne staging I mentioned above.
I also liked Joélle Harvey’s Michal, sung with a very beautiful, limpid tone. She’s a very communicative, earnest singer, though her diction doesn’t always quite back her up. She and Davies blended excellently in their duets. Elizabeth Atherton’s Merab was certainly a contrast to Harvey, but her lean soprano often sounded thin and tight. She improved over the course of the performance, though. As Saul, Jonathan Best sounded appropriately senior and authoritative, but didn’t seem to have the charisma befitting a title character nor the facility to carry off all the coloratura. Finally, Robert Murray was a pleasant Jonathan.
This was a totally respectable, sometimes even excellent performance that rarely was fully absorbing. Maybe this is what happens when you go to see Handel after a lot of Elektra but I could have used a little more blood.
*I never found out if he sang for the rest because I moved during intermission.