If he were alive today, King Saul might be called a "flaky" leader. The symptoms come through quite clearly in Handel's oratorio "Saul," presented in a somewhat abbreviated version last night to open the Kennedy Center's 10th annual Handel Festival.
The glorious music does nothing to mask the symptoms; in fact, in the hands of a composer as dramatically adept as Handel, a touch of paranoia in the title role makes the music even stronger, particularly as interpreted by a singing actor as able as bass-baritone Morley Meredith. Conductor Stephen Simon powerfully underlined the dramatic values in this oratorio, which could easily be reclassified as an opera.
Saul does a lot of brooding because the chorus is so enthusiastic about David slaying Goliath. When David tries to charm him out of his depression with a harp solo (beautifully played by Carolyn Gregg), Saul flings a javelin at him. He also hears voices -- at least the voice of the dead prophet Samuel, with a chilling (and accurate) prediction that he is about to die. Saul was not the first paranoid, or the last, who had real problems. But his worst problems were of his own making, and in this fact is rooted the dramatic impact of one of Handel's most powerful music dramas.
The music is equal to the power and grandeur of the dramatic scenes -- most notably in the roles of Saul and David but also in the small role of Samuel. The chorus has many moments of glory, and encloses the entire work in two elaborate numbers: a song of triumph at the beginning and a long lamentation for the death of Saul and Jonathan at the end, which modulates into a welcome for the new King David.
"Saul" is also rich in instrumental pieces -- above all, the well-known funeral march, but also sinfonias between acts or scenes, a short, atmospheric battle piece and an interpolated organ concerto, in which Norman Scribner (who also trained the fine chorus) soloed effectively. Scribner also provided some atmospheric continuo work -- notably the spooky organ chords that accompanied Samuel's appearance -- but this responsibility was shared with J. Reilly Lewis, who played an idiomatic harpsichord continuo.
Among the singers, Meredith and countertenor Paul Esswood (as David) were the best, tending toward a fully operatic style in their interpretation. Soprano Linda Mabbs and tenor John Stewart sounded more like oratorio singers -- well versed in Baroque style but less dramatically involved. Elaine Malbin was dramatically and musically adept, but countertenor David Clenny, as the Witch of Endor, did not seem to have his voice fully under control. Among the several members of the chorus who took small parts, John Vroom was most impressive as Samuel.