Sunday, April 14, 2019

Handel's Saul resonates resplendently as pages turn effortlessly in Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale’s concert performance in San Francisco

Need a new challenge? Imagine ticking off at the theatre or concert hall at least half of George Frideric Handel’s staggering output of more than 70 musical dramas he composed in the decades that followed his first opera that premiered in 1705, Almira. In Handel’s mix of operas and oratorios, San Franciscans have three occasions to add to the tally this year at the very least. First up, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale’s concert performance of Saul has come to an end of a short season that took it to audiences across several Californian venues - including Los Angeles’ Disney Hall - since it opened on 6th April in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. My opportunity to see it came on Friday evening within the classical-revival elegance of San Francisco’s beautifully proportioned Herbst Theatre. The results were splendid and the pleasures it gave were plentiful.

Daniel Okulitch as Saul 
With a libretto freely adapted by Charles Jennens from the First Book of Samuel
in the Old Testament, Saul, composed in 1739, is usually performed as an oratorio in concert form, but here and there has also been staged as an opera - the most notable recent example being Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s spectacular staging by director Barrie Kosky. 

Though not entirely, much of the story centres on Saul, King of the Israelites, and his insecurity and fear of losing popularity to the brave young warrior David, slayer of the Philistine giant Goliath. First, Saul praises David’s victory and offers Merab, one of his daughters, in marriage to her disgust. Adding to the dilemma, Merab’s sister Michal is in love with David. Worse, when Saul has a change of heart he compels his son Jonathan, who has sworn devotion to David, to kill him. 

Without the creative trimmings of the theatre, conductor Nicholas McGegan’s respectful and intimate approach allowed the drama’s psychological aspect to resonate significantly, together with soloists who painted their own talented mark on Handel’s score. Handel’s chorus work gleamed in its attractive offset parts - the final “Gird on thy sword, though man of might” a particularly resplendent blend - but it was the dramatic polarity achieved in contrasting voice types between Saul and David that impressively capped the drama.  

Gravelly and robustly structured bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch’s Saul was outstanding and no-one gave the text such clarity as he showed with it, excelling in both recitative and aria. When the pressure mounted, Okulitch let loose in gripping and emphatic form, portraying Saul’s troubled inner thoughts with excruciating mental pain with the physical bearing to match. 
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as David and
 Sherezade Panthaki as Michal

As David, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was a magnetic presence as he sang with unassuming sincerity and heroism, his syrupy, stirring and easily floated countertenor a beguiling force for audience and admiring Israelites of the chorus alike. In David’s Act 1 slow-tempo aria, “O Lord, whose mercies numberless”, in which he sings a summoning of tranquility to quell Saul’s fury, the delicacy and grace of Cohen’s countertenor shone with comforting, dreamy beauty. Equally compelling came the heft and smouldering darker tones of the voice in Act 3’s “Impious wretch, of race accurst!” when the loyal David learns of Jonathan and Saul’s death in battle. 

The romantic duets with lustrous soprano Sherezade Panthaki’s swooning Michal were special highlights in which the pleasure of unity came with glorious vocal alignment, the amorous strains of Act 2’s “O fairest of ten thousand fair” picked up by a perfectly sublime chorus. Panthaki herself made a stronger impression the more she settled after early vocal leaps that lacked smooth transition. Her final aria, “In sweetest harmony they liv’d” was completely absorbing, the crystal top notes created with ease and the full extent of the voice interpreting her father and brother’s death utterly convincingly.

As Merab, mellifluous, bell-like soprano Yulia Van Doren was radiant both as privileged princess and heartfelt woman. Not one, it appeared, to avoid the spices available to her in the text, Van Doren made especially fine work of Act 1’s “Capricious man, in humour lost” with arabesque trills and gymnastic register shifts that added much to her animated performance. 
Conductor Nicholas McGegan and Yulia Van Doren as Merab

Aaron Sheehan’s warm and pure tenor met the needs of a man besotted by courage but could have done with a little more vigour in giving Jonathan a greater sense that a heart was being torn when Saul commands him to murder David. Shiny tenor Jonathan Smucker stepped from the chorus into the roles of the Witch of Endor, Abner and a Amalekite in good form. But then this treat. Commandingly sung with a spot of welcome natural-sounding English, bass-baritone Christian Pursell not only made the most of the two smaller roles of Dieg and Samuel but made you want more. And how relishing the sound and adaptability of the chorus lived under Bruce Lamott’s directorship.

Evident too was the warm collegiality among the players of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. The synchronicity of the violins resonated superbly under concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock’s leading choreographed-like bow strokes and body movements, Janet See and Mindy Rosenfeld’s flute accompaniment shared sweet atmospheric equality and Kristin Zoernig and Michael Minor’s double bass work stamped an endearing mark. And with his team, McGegan admirably eschewed the grandiose and opted for lightness, eloquence and precision.

Handel’s achievements are many but when a large audience sits and turns the pages of their programs in unison to the libretto to his glorious music, 280 years after its composition, you couldn’t imagine Bible Studies being any more exhilarating. 

More Handel comes in June with San Francisco Opera’s new production of Orlando - you get to hear Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen in the role of Medoro - and of course, Handel’s Messiah will bring uplifting spirit to the Christmas festive season. I’m not even a local but I’m counting on being there.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale 
Herbst Theatre, San Francisco 
12th April 2019

Production Photos: Frank Wing (from opening night performance)

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