Regime Change: Saul from the Theater an der Wien

Händel – Saul

Saul – Florian Boesch
Merab – Anna Prohaska
Michal – Giulia Semenzato
Jonathan – Rupert Charlesworth
David – Jake Arditti
High Priest – David Webb
Witch of Endor – Rafa
ł Tomkiewicz
Amalekite – Andrew Morstein

Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Freiburger Barockorchester / Christopher Moulds.
Stage director – Claus Guth.  Video director – Tiziano Mancini.

Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria.  Saturday, May 8th, 2021.  Streamed via Myfidelio.at

For its latest premiere, the Theater an der Wien revived this, Claus Guth’s staging of Saul, previously seen at the house in 2018.  As with so many shows recently, rather than lose the work that the cast had put in to its preparation, the house went ahead with recording the production for eventual commercial release, but without an audience due to the ongoing sanitary restrictions in place in the Austrian capital.  It is currently available to view on the Austrian platform, myfidelio.  This requires a VPN to watch from outside Austria, Germany or the Helvetic Confederation, but they helpfully offer a two-week free trial should anyone outside of those countries, suitably technologically enabled, wish to watch it.

And you should certainly make the effort, because this is a show with multiple rewards.  Guth’s staging offers us a fascinating study in what it means to be a warrior leader, and the disintegration that comes when one is no longer as omnipotent as before, when a young pretender with greater prowess appears and is quickly lauded by the crowd.  Guth sets the work in a universe of family drama, within a wider society that thrives on unthinking conformism.  A rotating stage, allows us to see the interactions within the family as they bring David into their lives, Saul’s harrowing descent into madness, and the big crowd scenes.  This is a society that can only follow – the chorus here becomes a complicit mob, constantly reacting to events in coordinated hand movements, in the manner of Peter Sellars. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

As the evening developed, there was a sense of gradual regime change, as the mysterious stranger became ever more powerful while the older warrior disintegrated.  The way Guth used the chorus to portray that change of regime, whether through them praising David more than Saul, or the gradual changes in the chorus’s costumes that illustrated the transfer of power, was deeply compelling.  Similarly, the final tableau created a deeply haunting image, one that suggested that power may very well be a poisoned chalice.  The crowd was clearly in thrall to Jake Arditti’s magnetic David, his fresh-faced exterior youthfulness seemingly masking a determination visible in the eyes, thanks to Tiziano Mancini’s fluent camerawork.  Interesting that the members of Saul’s family were also in thrall to David as, while he sang ‘such haughty beauties’, Michal, Merab and Jonathan all tried to get it on with him simultaneously.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

I found Guth’s juxtaposition of Florian Boesch’s rather gruff Saul and Arditti’s otherworldly David utterly fascinating.  Boesch was such a haunting stage presence, the disintegration palpable through his unsparing acting and his ability to use the voice to bringing out both heroism and fear.  The darkness of tone of his baritone gave a sense of a man in the dark night of the soul, yet there were no hints of dryness in the tone.  He dispatched the florid writing with accuracy, without aspirates, and his willingness to give so generously of himself to us was inspirational.  Guth had Saul also sing the lines of Samuel’s ghost, for which Boesch darkened the tone even more, and this image of a man desperate to get any kind of resolution, even while losing shreds of his sanity was deeply affecting.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Arditti gave a revelatory performance as David.  His countertenor is youthful and bright in tone and his stage presence, with that relatively lost demeanour hiding a metal within, was magnetic.  He dispatched his ‘O Lord whose mercies numberless’ with an easy legato and fine breath control.  His ‘Impious wretch, of race accurst’ was sung with palpable anger yet without compromising the integrity of the tone, with the leaps and florid writing dispatched with ease.  He also blended agreeably with Giulia Semenzato’s Michal in their duet. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Semenzato sang her music with a pleasant soprano, though there was a tendency to occasionally land on the underside of the note.  The tone is agreeable enough, she has an attractive legato and turns the corners easily.  Neither she nor Anna Prohaska’s Merab sang in particularly clear English.  Prohaska threw herself into everything asked of her – her Merab was very much a force of nature and a lady who enjoyed a glass of wine or two.  Fortunately, the intonation issues that have marred my enjoyment of Prohaska’s singing in the past were not to be seen here.  She even dispatched ‘Capricious man, in humour lost’ with a livewire energy and daring descents below the stave.  Rupert Charlesworth sang Jonathan’s music in an easily-produced, bright and forward tenor with an instinctive sense of line.  David Webb sang the High Priest in a muscular tenor, not afraid to compromise the tone where needed for compelling dramatic effect. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The Arnold Schoenberg Chor was on magnificent form.  Despite the fact that the revolving stage must have created issues in both seeing the conductor and hearing the band from the pit, they sang with remarkable accuracy and tight ensemble, even in the most complex fugal passages.  The tone was fresh and youthful, and blend was immaculate.  The Freiburgers gave us some sensational playing under Christopher Moulds’ direction, undoubtedly helped by Moulds’ electric conducting.  His tempi transformed his music, making it less a genteel English entertainment and instead a performance of sheer physical immediacy.  Every sforzando meant something, with strings digging deep to create shocks of meaning.  The impact of the brass and the timpani in that opening chorus, the sheer sense of rhythmic drive, made one immediately sit up and listen and Moulds and his forces didn’t let go for the next few hours.  Naturally, the Freiburgers allowed the ingenuity of Händel’s orchestration to truly register – whether in the festivities of the New Moon or the darkness of the dead march.  The quality of the playing throughout was outstanding.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

This is certainly a Saul that any lover of Händel’s music will not want to miss – and indeed any lover of music theatre would find much to appreciate here.  While the diction from the ladies was sadly disappointing, the singing was always stylish and the drama flourished under Moulds’ thrilling conducting.  Guth gives a view into the dark side of power, of what happens when power is lost and when one lives with the ever-present horror of war.  Dramatically, this is exceptionally powerful and musically generally extremely good.  Well worth seeing. 

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