Christopher Purves as Saul surrounded by HGO Chorus, dancers, and supers. (Photo by Lynn Lane)
The dances and vivid costumes are just one more reason Saul is like no other opera. (Photo by Lynn Lane)
HGO Studio alumnae Pureum Jo as Merab (Photo by Lynn Lane)
With help from the HGO chorus and dancers, David (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen) ascends. (Photo by Lynn Lane)
Saul won't always keep his head in this Biblical game of thrones. (Photo by Lynn Lane)
Expect great spectacle in this Saul production. (Photo by Lynn Lane)
When Houston Grand Opera announced its 2019-2020 season early this year, artistic director Patrick Summers made quite the unusual pronouncement that if opera-lovers could only see one production, they must see the not-so-often produced Saul.
Wait, Saul? The Biblical story of the first king of the ancient Israelites, whose jealousy led him to lose his throne to people’s giant-killer David? George Frideric Handel’s Saul, which the Baroque master created not as an opera but as an oratorio, a kind of dramatize concert, because the religious leaders of 18th century England forbid full staging of Bible stories? That Saul?
But as it depicts the fall of a mad king, royal same and opposite-sex love triangles, spirit channeling, a divinely-favored warrior/hero, dancing mind spirits, a decapitated giant’s head and one lactating psychic witch, Summers seems pretty certain Saul is the one performance even the most opera-novice will not want to miss.
“It’s unlike anything you’ll ever see in an opera house,” he tells me when we discuss the production he also conducts.
Originally from the guiding vision of Barrie Kosky, who Summers calls one of the greatest directors of opera in the world right now, this production stunned audiences at its premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2015. Now HGO presents the North American debut.
“Handel was a spiritual man himself, but ultimately the thing that guided him always was that he was a man of the theater,” Summers says. “Though Saul was not conceived by Handel to have ever been staged, it is one of the most stage-worthy works of Handel. It’s certainly filled with action but it’s also filled with deep probing psychological insights into characters that only great opera composers can achieve.”
The opera begins immediately after David slays Goliath, as David is at first welcomed into Saul’s court, but his new found celebrity creates royal intrigue, tests of loyalties and soon leads Saul into jealous rages.
“Saul descends into madness for reasons we never know,” Summers describes. “Is it because of the arrival of David a potential usurper of his throne or is it simply some kind of madness that’s never explained.”
The inherent drama of the work makes for an opera filled with poignant meaning on many levels, yet it has never become a regular offering for most opera company seasons.
“It’s a complex work to explain to people, but it’s one of the greatest single scores of the Baroque or any era. It is a truly magnificent work of Handel,” Summers says. “Saul has been a dream of mine for many years and I’m so thrilled to bring it to the stage.”
Full of great dance, movement, vivid costumes and startling imagery, this Kosky production gives a new vision to what Saul can become when allowed to expand to its full operatic glory.
“Certainly as a production it is one of the most kinetic and ambitious we’ve ever had on our stage, certainly since the Wagner Ring operas,” says Summers.
Forever Seeking the Artistic Spirit
Saul arrives as the first production of the 2019-2020 season under their ongoing Seeking the Human Spirit Initiative, which Summers defines as HGO’s “attempt to engage opera in a larger discussion about why people seek out art.”
“I believe many who seek out the arts as patrons, in their lives, are seeking stories of a spiritual meaning,” he says. “I don’t mean religious works but works that touch on our common humanity, and Saul, unquestionably, is one of the greatest works of that kind.”
This season’s Human Spirit Initiative focuses on the nature of identity, a question that Summers believes Saul asks in many ways, including how ambition, power and leadership create identities for individual monarchs and the nations and people they rule. Perhaps these themes also give the work a timelessness quality as this ancient Biblical story certainly resonated to Handel’s audience in politically turbulent 18th century England, as much as it likely will for Houston audiences.
Summers notes that while we don’t live in under monarchy system of government, we do tend to project our own wants and ambitions onto politicians, leaders and even the latest celebrity.
“It feels very modern and relevant to our time,” Summers argues. “It’s about ambition and what ambition does to a person. And it’s about a community of people seeking spiritual solace in the midst of an uncontrollable political reality.”
For a production that looks to become the musical and visual feast of the season, I wondered if we should watch for some small moments or big movements before getting swept up in the theatricalities of the sounds and images on stage.
“When you’re hearing a work this old and you have at your cultural disposal the 300 years of music that came after it – from Wagner and Mahler to Elvis Presley – it’s easy to miss how inventive, playful and moving Handel’s music is and how varied it is, the enormous range that exists in Saul from a plaintive aria accompanied by one cello to these huge choruses with trumpets, drums and trombones,” describes Summers.
He hopes even while losing ourselves in the magnificent spectacle of the production that we’ll “take a moment to listen to the extraordinary music.”
Houston Grand Opera’s production of Saul premieres tonight and runs through November 8 at the Wortham Center.