Adelaide Festival of Arts. Barrie Kosky. Festival Theatre. 3 Mar 2017
The wunderkind returns, his lustre gleaming with decades of polish. And, 20 years after his time as Adelaide Festival artistic director, he brings to us from Glyndebourne the gift of Saul.
It is the jewel in the crown of the Healy/Armfield 2017 Adelaide Festival - the grand European operatic experience which will lodge itself in the city’s cultural memory like The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Death in Venice, Peter Brook's Mahabharata, Voss, Nixon in China, The Roman Tragedies and, oh, Pina Bausch, Pina Bausch…
It is an opera so visually sumptuous, one imagines that all the Dutch Masters had been unleashed upon the stage with swans and great dead carcasses amid towers of flowers. The women of the grand State Opera chorus are clad in gorgeous Georgian dresses, faces whitened, wigs fanciful. The opening tableau is simply a feast for the eyes
But first, the ears. Beneath the stage, the ASO is mellow-tuned and fulsome to the ear. The overture is a joy. Close the eyes. It is a musical conversation from the mind of Handel. And then from the pitch darkness of the stage, gradually, the monstrous severed head of Goliath is revealed, huge and bloody, mouth agape.
A traumatised David appears with his slingshot, his torso ravaged by battle with the giant. And the narrative is sung, full of thanks and celebrations by the people for his feat. Saul, long hair swinging on his back, struts amid his people and offers his hapless daughter’s hand in marriage to the victor. It is his second daughter Michal who loves David. And his son, Jonathan.
And the story unfolds with Saul sinking into terrible psychotic episodes which even the love and comfort of his people cannot assuage. He is consumed with pathological jealousy of David and seeks his demise.
The libretto is delivered in surtitles so that we may fully grasp the beauty of its language.
One does not catch the every word when sung in choral force but, oh, when Stuart Jackson sings, there is not a consonant let alone a syllable unclear. This ample English tenor, white-faced and flower-crowned, undulating his great arms and waving long High Priest talons on his fingers, sings with a breath of heaven.
The cast is crème de la crème with fine opera singers, Mary Bevan, Taryn Fiebig and Adrian Strooper as Saul’s offspring, Merab, Michal and Jonathan. The dancers are eruptions of joy - fleet, fanciful, funny with shades of Pina Bausch in their Otto Pichler choreography.
David is embodied by Christopher Lowrey and his counter tenor voice is yet more celestial. His first sung note is so pure and extended one can almost see it heading to the heavens.
But then there is the passion of the baritone, Christopher Purves, as Saul. His is a mighty performance in every aspect of operatic drama. It is an exhaustingly strenuous performance delivered with utter physical and emotional commitment. From his meteoric moods, Saul undergoes the absolute meltdown. Thwarted and broken by his family’s refusal to destroy David, he crawls in spiteful secret to the arms of the exiled Witch of Endor, played by Kanen Breen with a touch of artful depravity. The witch is an underworld androgyny with pendulous breasts reminiscent of the Hindu witch Rangga. Saul begs her to deliver to him the ghost of Samuel and he takes succour from her. Milk drips from his mouth as he rises to the knowledge that he is to be defeated and that David will succeed him as King of the Israelites. And so it comes to pass.
The action takes place upon a steeply-raked black stage where a deep layer of finely shaved rubber gives the effect of black seaweed or sand. The performers can kick it up as they move, let it shower from their hands… They can bury one another in it.
It is just one of the marvels of the production. Joachim Klein's lighting is another. From Dutch master vivid to the gloom of the death fields. And there’s the marvel of the tabletop whence Saul’s head sticks out, surrounded by creepy scampering spider fingers.
It is such a contrast to the Hogarthian decadence and opulence of earlier scenes.
The Barrie Kosky aesthetics and his delicious artistic and intellectual audacity make Saul a vast, visual roller coaster of an extravaganza experience. There is a mad, Biblical narrative in there. But, with Kosky, it is also a window into psychopathology and love in its many aspects. Many threads lie beneath the surface to be unravelled as one reflects upon the grandeur of it all.
The audience rises to its feet and it shouts and whoops and claps until hands grow weak. Then it claps some more.
Bravo Barrie Kosky.
Thankyou Healy and Armfield.
When: 3 to 9 Mar
Where: Festival Theatre
Photography by Tony Lewis