An unhinged ruler says one thing does another and can’t remember which is which. He suffers from paranoid delusions, is addicted to conspiracy theories. Certifiably insane, he enlists clandestine help from a black magic, Gordon Liddy-like “plumber” known as the Witch of Endor.
No, this isn’t a description of the nightly fare served up on Fox News and MSNBC. It’s Handel’s much bigger and bolder show—his oratorio, Saul, first heard in London in 1739. The main difference between the Old Testament story that fired Handel’s musical imagination and the ongoing hijinks crazily orchestrated by Trump and his dramaturgs is that in the former, the king’s son, Jonathan, offers sound advice to his father and courageously resists his nefarious ways. Don Jr. should have a look at the First Book of Samuel, the main source for the oratorio’s libretto. Better yet, take in Handel’s Saul.
For those happy hundreds with a tickets to the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s bracing and beautiful performance of Saul under the direction of Nicholas McGegan in Palo Alto’s First United Methodist Church last Saturday night, the oratorio demonstrated by sublime contrast just how tedious the ravings of the American’s ruler are, and just how bland the dramas staged by both his critics s and supporters. Redacted or not, the Mueller report will make for a terrible libretto. Even Trump’s ever more deranged flirtation with God’s wrath, especially after his asinine tweet recommending the dispatch of aerial water tankers to douse the flames engulfing Notre Dame de Paris, can’t match the gripping tension of Handel’s musical theater.
The performance of Saul took place in Palo Alto’s First United Methodist church, a brutalist concrete structure with steeply pitched, massively ribbed, nave. Fire would not make much headway against this bunker. It’s a like small gothic cathedral updated as bomb shelter. In my book, that counts as honest architectural engagement with its time of origin—the early 1960s and the height of nuclear angst. Heard in this place, Saul’s political topicality reminds one of other present-day realities: the Doomsday Clock is now at two minutes to midnight; the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had it at seven minutes to annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis when work on First Methodist had just gotten underway. McGegan likes fast tempos, as if he’s worried that time might run out before Saul comes to the end of its two-and-a-half hours. Philharmonia’s speed can be daring, even heroic, but also nerve-wracking.
Handel mounted Saulin his first season of oratorio. The appeal of Italian opera, the blockbuster entertainment of the eighteenth century and the pursuit that had brought Handel to England back in 1711, was waning, its financial viability increasingly difficult to maintain. A great admirer of Handel, the art-loving patrician Charles Jennens helped push him further towards oratorio with his smartly constructed, well-paced libretto.
However deftly Jennens fashioned the arc of the story and delineated his characters, his diction was pompous. If not for Handel’s masterful depictions and uncanny sense for scansion and imagery (especially impressive given that he was a non-native English speaker), one would be prone to titter at lines like these from Jonathan’s last air that anticipate the mocking cries of the victorious Philistines:
“Lest we, whom once so much they fear’d,
Be by their women now despis’d,
And lest the daughters of th’uncircumcised
Rejoice and triumph in our shame.”
Paradoxically perhaps, Jennens’ stilted poetry brought forth from Handel moments of great expressive power. In Jonathan’s final rhymes, his shade laments as from Elysian fields, not the blood strewn slopes of Mt. Gilboa. Handel wrenches painful dissonance from “despis’d,” Jonathan’s ardent plaint then rising above the illusory pastoral calm of the accompaniment. Aaron Sheehan’s voice is pure of pitch but has depth and texture. He sang the part with nuance and moral conviction. His Jonathan remained heroic and poised in death and defeat, just as Handel’s music struggles with, triumphs over, the misogyny and violence of the libretto.
Young countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen took the role of David and is rightly lionized. I felt lucky to be able to hear him on the periphery of the Silicon Valley, often a parched cultural landscape. Cohen has the expressive range, vocal agility, and engaging demeanor of a Handelian star. His is not an overpowering voice, but it is a rich and subtle one. The part of David is varied and demanding, and Cohen brings it to life with complexity and verve: his performance was by turns commanding and ravishing as the dramatic occasion demanded.
Handel conceived his David as a trouser role, though at the 1739 premiere the Italian contralto took ill and a man jumped in: Handel was not much concerned with the gender correspondence between a character and actor. I suspect that even for those unfamiliar with the high-voiced heroes of the Handelian stage, Cohen convinces immediately through his musicality, taste, and confidence.
In the part of his betrothed, Michal, was soprano Sherezade Panthaki, an exuberant, yet refined singer: her trills and passagework glint and shimmer, her long tones dazzle and drawn you in. Heard alongside of, and then entwined with, Cohen’s countertenor, hers is an irresistible voice, one Handel would certainly have loved, as in the rapturous duet “O Fairest of Ten Thousand Fair. ”
In the title role, a smaller one than those given of the other soloists, baritone Daniel Okulitch was grave and mercurial. His conjuring of the Witch of Endor at the start of the last of the oratorio’s three acts was desperate and affecting: one felt for his Saul and his descent into madness and dirty tricks.
Besides the Book of Samuel, Jennens also drew on a seventeenth-century English poem called the Davideis to help him color Saul’s eldest daughter Merab as a mostly mean-spirited snob contemptuous of David’s lowly origins. The Princess thinks this upstart unfit to wed her sister, Michal, promised to him by Saul after David had felled Goliath, a deed already done when the oratorio begins. Merab’s scorn is full of stylish bravura, as when she scolds her brother Jonathan for accepting the David as a brother in her second aria (the English used the term “air”) of just two lines: “What abject thoughts a prince can have! / In rank a prince, in mind a slave.” The pauses are haughty, the coloratura, too. The part was taken with spiteful panache and regal condescension by soprano Yulia Van Doren.
The solo numbers in Saulare often more succinct than the extended arias heard on the opera stage. The musical language is shared with opera, even if the language sung is a different one. That English audiences could understand the nuances of the text, even one as awkward as Jennens’, was also crucial to the success of these works, which were put in the Kings Theatre in London’s Haymarket where his operas had also been staged.
It was the terrific choruses that won the oratorios their immediate and lasting celebrity, such that the most successful of them became instant classics and never left the repertoire, from professional orchestras and choirs to community choruses accompanied by a single organ —or even just a piano.
Recently recovered from a stroke (or, according to the latest theory, from lead poison from too much continental wine stabilized with the deadly additive), Handel was excited by the prospect of Saul not just because it provided, literally, a platform for his choruses, but because of the novelties with which he hoped to enliven the entertainment. He commissioned a special keyboard carillon (Handel gave it an Old Testament name: the Tubal-Cain); he brought in an organ from which he, like an Old Testament general, could command his forces; he ordered up bespoke sackbuts. These trombones were mostly unknown to London audiences, thus adding to the carnivalesque excitement surrounding the show. Handel believed that these instruments would fascinate the crowds with their sonorities and also in their evocation of the instruments the bible. The composer-impresario even borrowed super-sized kettledrums from the Tower of London for the surround-sound din of battle and celebration.
These special effects helped fill the seats, though his monomaniacal efforts came in for much ridicule as well. Jennings grumbled about these obsessions: in a letter to friend he referred to the Tubal-cain and the special organ as “Maggots” infesting Handel’s busy brain.The carillon part is sparkling fun.
Jennens also had to work hard to dissuade Handel from ending the piece with a chorus of Hallelujahs: such jubilation would have hardly been fitting given the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. Instead, Handel opened with the triumphant “How Excellent They Name” heard at the beginning and then again at the end of the first scene celebrating David’s victory over Goliath. For the reprise Handel added the mighty Hallelujahs, whose rousing volleys would echo through Messiah a few years later. (Listen here to the opening chorus—though without the Hallelujahs—as performed by the righteous heirs to the Handelian Biblical Sublime: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:
The twenty-five-voice Philharmonia Chorale, directed by Bruce Lamott, delivered the choruses with force and clarity across a vast range of emotions and styles, though they were occasionally harried by McGegan’s eagerness.
Handel put his trio of sackbuts and the funereal drums to good and lugubrious use in the “Dead March” —the elegy for Saul after he’s fallen on his sword. One of Handel’s most famous tunes, it has accompanied many an anglophone (and non-anglophone) ruler to his final resting place, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill.
There are more than a few modern day Handelians who would like to hear the Dead March resound over imminent Trump obsequies, never mind that its strains would add an aura of regal poise to the burial of poise-less brute. Then again, bad king Saul was accorded the same honor by Handel.
If, soon after, the Dead March were then to send Mike Pence on his way to the next world, the imperious Pelosi, a modern-day Merab with a gavel, would ascend the throne. The Philistines at last vanquished, she would be the one to the lead righteous America as Handel’s final chorus from Saul commands:
“Thy strong right hand, with terror armed,
Shall thy obdurate foes dismay;
While others, by thy virtue charm’d
Shall crowd to own thy righteous sway.”