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A Nature of Self-Destruction and a Very Big Head


Handel's Saul

Barrie Kosky | Erin Helyard

Stories of narcissism are more relevant than ever. In our age of omnipresent cameras and selfie-fueled social media, we are made to look at our personal selves more intensely than ever before, with no belief system powerful enough to convince us of any detrimental effects that would come from this unnaturally high level of self-obsession. We are all kings and queens, in our own minds at least, always placing the preponderant I at the centre of our universes, rarely able to conceive of anything greater, beyond the immediate and the ego.

Saul loses his mind, when he thinks his kingship threatened by David, a younger, better version of himself, who had become the nation’s darling after slaying the giant Philistine Goliath. Seeing his subjects, and his children, becoming thus enamoured, is completely devastating to Saul, who proceeds to unravel, in a series of self-destructive manoeuvres that take him to his dramatic ruin. It is a highly moralistic tale, one that upholds a particular notion of purity, and that abominates vanity, but Saul‘s preachiness takes on new resonance in our advanced evolutionary state of self-interest, made even more pertinent by Barrie Kosky’s characteristically heretical direction.

The show, a big hit at Glyndebourne Opera Festival where it originated two summers ago, is lavish, lush and at times, scandalously lascivious. The approach can be seen as ironic; exposing a gay affair between David and the prince Jonathan, or having Saul suck on a witch’s nipple, then smothering himself in the bad woman’s milk. Costume and set designer Katrin Lea Tag, along with lighting doyen Joachim Klein provide thrilling imagery so decadent (we gasp when the curtain rises), that one is prevented from interpreting any of Handel’s religious instruction too literally. Instead, we luxuriate in the extravagance of it all, and let the morals be subjugated by the far more engaging, and sonorous beauty of the production’s remarkable artistry.

The enthralling Christopher Purves is a commanding Saul, his voice and charisma in constant competition for our affections. Mary Bevan and Taryn Fiebig, as Saul's daughters Merab and Michal, are both impressive sopranos, who bring surprising authenticity and tension to their characterisations. Most memorable is perhaps the company of fifty from the State Opera of South Australia Chorus, who overcome acoustic limitations of the auditorium, for a collective presence full of power and remarkable conviction.

There are sections in the show that are purposefully minimal in approach, but those require a standard of performance that is not always delivered by the cast. Although we alternate between engrossment and disinterestedness over its duration, Kosky’s Saul is unforgettable. The fierce sense of adventure in every one of its bold, inventive and playful expressions, demonstrates the brilliance that can come out of creative genius when met with corresponding resources. We have the talent and money here, but how we can make them converge remains an Australian predicament on an operatic scale.

photo | ©Tony Lewis

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