Mary Woodward at the Festivals

Edinburgh International Festival, Saul, Usher Hall, Review

***** (5 stars)

“simply sublime”

I would go and hear Iestyn Davies sing anything: even the telephone directory, if he were so inclined.  He would make it magical and heart-rending and so deeply felt it transported his listeners to another world, far away from the mundane and temporal.  Add to this the music of Handel, the supreme master: matchless in emotion, colour, contrast of moods, dramatic intensity and lyrical beauty, and success is assured before a note has been played or sung…

David has just slain Goliath, and he’s everybody’s hero.  King Saul promises him the hand of his elder daughter Merab, her brother Jonathan swears eternal friendship and love, and their sister Michal thinks he’s the most wonderful person on earth.  This doesn’t last!  Merab despises his plebeian origins and Saul, who hasn’t the firmest grasp on rationality, becomes obsessed with what he sees as a threat to his kingship and orders Jonathan to kill David.  Jonathan refuses; David leads the Israelite army to further victories and is rewarded with the hand of Michal, but is not in favour for very long.  Saul in desperation seeks the advice of the Witch of Endor: she raises the ghost of the prophet Samuel, who bluntly informs Saul that he disobeyed God’s orders regarding the Amalekite king and his possessions, and so will die, as will Jonathan, while David will become king.  All this comes to pass, and the survivors mourn the loss of so many Israelites.

It’s Handel at his dramatic best, with soloists and chorus taking turns to tell the story and comment on the narrative – rejoicing and mourning, pleading and celebrating in turn.  The English Concert are superb – such a wide range of instruments in so many combinations, orchestration and composition telling the story almost without need for words.  John Butt danced his way through conducting them, drawing out superb performances from each and every player.  The Choir of the English Concert was equally accomplished, with several members taking small solo roles, stepping out of the chorus and briefly into the limelight].  Special mention must be made the sonorous and impressive Samuel [William Thomas] who delivered his bad news from the rear of the stage but still filled the entire auditorium. With sound

And we were blessed with a magnificent sextet of soloists.  Neal Davies was Saul, regal in power and vicious in enmity, his moods fluctuating unpredictably: Andrew Haji’s tenor, both heroic and lyrical, was perfect for the conflicted Jonathan.  James Gilchrist was a noble and patient High Priest and a fascinating WItch of Endor.  Sophie Bevan was the supercilious Merab, refusing to countenance being married to David, but finally recognising his good qualities.  Liv Redpath was a radiant Michal, patiently loving David from afar, hoping that his playing would ease her father’s madness, rejoicing in being united with her love, and dolefully mourning the crushing defeat which left her farther and brother dead.

And then there was Iestyn.  His voice is incredible – the range, the power, the passion, the searing intensity that has the whole auditorium ringing with plangent lament or soaring joy – he is simply unsurpassed in music of this period.  His Orfeo at the EIF in 2019 had me in tears as he lamented the death of his beloved Euridice: his David tonight was exquisite.  Please God he will be back in Edinburgh very soon.

And the audience saluted each and every performer on stage with loud appreciative and prolonged applause, each act being saluted first with that magic silence before the crashing applause – the thing an artist really wants to hear, which means more than all the applause in the world.

Edinburgh International Festival, Saul, Usher Hall, Run Ended.

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