Barry Kosky calls himself the extravagant minimalist.
His approach is writ large on the main stage of the Adelaide Festival Centre in an exuberant production of Handel’s first oratorio, Saul. The staging is minimal — little more than a raked stage, large tables and a generous layer of topsoil — but this blank canvas is splattered with colour and movement. Costumes, gestures, lights, exploding on the senses. Wigs a-plenty. Wicked dance moves. A smattering of severed heads. And that’s before you take Handel’s music into account.
This production was created for the 2015 Glyndebourne Opera Festival. It comes to the Adelaide Festival with its creatives, its dancers and its original Saul, the spectacular Christopher Purves. The rest of the cast is a classy mix of English and Australian singers, including Christopher Lowrey (Didymus in Pinchgut’s Theodora), Taryn Fiebig and Kanen Breen from here, Mary Bevan and Stuart Jackson from the UK plus Adrian Strooper, a new face for me, a graduate of Canberra School of Music and in the ensemble of Komische Oper Berlin and very impressive as Jonathan. The rest of the ensemble is locally sourced – a band made up of Adelaide Symphony Orchestra members, the State Opera Chorus, and Pinchgut Opera artistic director Erin Helyard running the show from the harpsichord. I’m not intending to critique individual performances, not least because it’s not fair to review a working dress rehearsal which was put on sale two days ago. But if you have got a ticket to the real thing – and if you haven’t, sorry, it’s completely sold out, has been for months – then rest assured, you need have no concerns. They’re all fab.
What I can talk about is Handel’s music, Kosky’s production and the whole knotty question of oratorio. Because after the Australian Brandenburg’s semi-staged, semi-successful take on Messiah last week, the challenges of this odd genre are on my mind.
In an interview with Glyndebourne dramaturg Cori Ellison, printed in the program, Kosky cuts off any thoughts of discussing the pros and cons of staging oratorio at the pass.
Get real! Opera is not about rules and regulations. Handel’s oratorios are sometimes more dramatic than his operas. We know that because we can hear it.
For what it’s worth, I agree. It all depends on the work. Messiah is a series of meditations on texts, with little interplay of characters. But cast your eye over the plot summary of Saul and it’s clearly a torrid psychological drama about five strong characters. In other words, eminently stageable. And the music begs for movement, especially when you have a six-piece dance troupe on hand, not to mention a chorus who rarely sit still. In other words, I don’t mind whether it recreates or reinterprets, as long as the production engages with the music, the words and the context in a meaningful way.
The real challenge, in my view, is presenting Handel and eighteenth-century drama at all in a twenty-first century theatre. It’s such an alien world. What do you do with the heroic aria and the contrapuntal chorus, the march, the lament, and the obligato organ cadenza?
You use your imagination and embrace the weird, that’s what. There’s plenty of weird and quite a bit of wonderful in the three and a half hour show, but Kosky masterfully sustains the attention, the drama, with cunning coups de theatre and crowd scenes so packed with detail that you don’t know where to look. The choreography — both the dancers and the chorus — is dynamic and surprising and the feel good highlight of the show. But perhaps even more compelling is the final act, where corpses twitch and moan as the last man standing claims his prize. In a show so packed with colour and movement, a chorus dressed in black, standing stock still, suddenly acquires a rare power.
I’m not a Handel scholar. I don’t know the ins and outs of his orchestration — Helyard’s version certainly involved unexpected tone colours which heightened the drama. There will be much in here for experts to argue about.
Let them. It’s a great show.
Saul opens the Adelaide Festival on Friday 3 March 2017. All four performances are sold out.