Directed by Ivars Taurins
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir
Joanne Lunn, soprano
Sherezade Panthaki, soprano
Daniel Taylor, countertenor
Rufus Müller, tenor
Peter Harvey, baritone
From triumph in victory to envy, madness, and murder, Saul is an epic oratorio of powerful drama - the story of a great but doomed king, and his jealousy of the young David. With a stellar cast of soloists and Handel’s rich orchestration, don’t miss the choral event of the year at Tafelmusik. Three performances only!
PDF of Full Synopsis and Libretto
All ticket-holders are welcome to a pre-concert lecture in the 1st balcony
lobby, 7pm to 7:30pm, Feb 21 and 22, as well as on Feb 23 from 2:30pm to 3pm. The lecture will be with Larry Beckwith, a singer (former member of Tafelmusik Chamber Choir), violinist, and Artistic Director of Toronto Masque Theatre.
Please note - running time of show is approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. The concert begins promptly at 8pm on Fri Feb 21, Sat Feb 22 and at 3:30pm on Sun Feb 23. Latecomers will not be seated until a designated break. As a courtesy to your fellow audience members, please be sure to arrive early to allow time for parking and to find your seat.
Soprano Joanne Lunn will be teaching a Guest Artist Masterclass from 1:00pm-3:00pm on Saturday Feb 22 at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre as part of the Baroque Mentors programme. More information
PDF of the Programme Notes
In 1735, the wealthy patron and man of letters Charles Jennens, an admirer of Handel’s work for many years, delivered a libretto to the composer. Handel replied politely that at first glance it looked quite satisfactory, and that in due course he would “read it with the Attention it deserves.” It is thought that the libretto was that of Saul, the story of the great King’s descent into madness.
Handel did not return to it until three years later, in the summer of 1738. The year before, during a particularly stressful period, Handel had suffered a paralytic stroke and mental collapse. He spent two months recovering at the famous sulphur baths at Aix-la-Chapelle, returning to London full of renewed energy and optimism. A busy opera season followed, and then a turning point: he spent the summer of 1738 setting the libretto of Saul, devoting an unusual amount of time and attention to it. He had composed a few English oratorios earlier in the decade, but with Saul he forged the form of “Sacred Drama” that was to be the focus of much of the rest of his career, a synthesis of elements of English masque and anthem, French drama, and Italian opera seria. The oratorios were performed in the theatre, but without scenery, costumes, or staging. Remarkably, some of Handel’s most dramatic music is to be found in the oratorios: without stage effects to amplify the story, the music itself is left to impart the psychological and emotional machinations of the human mind and heart, all set against the backdrop of the sweeping spectacle of history. A new and potent character joins the dramatis personae: the chorus, largely absent from the London opera stage, at turns participates in the action, and reflects and even moralizes upon it.
So to Saul, arguably the first great Handel oratorio. Jennens’ libretto is perhaps not the most eloquent, but it offers a tale filled with drama: national pride, rejoicing, suspicion, jealousy, friendship, love, the supernatural, tragic self-realization, grief, and restoration. The manuscript score is evidence of the tremendous effort and creative energy Handel devoted to the work: it is the most heavily corrected of all of his scores. Countless details have been altered and entire scenes replaced, many of the changes reflecting shifting approaches to characterizations and to the pacing of the drama.
Handel clearly set out to impress and astonish the London audiences, introducing into the orchestra a number of unusual instruments: David’s harp; a newly built and very expensive organ from which Handel directed the proceedings (and featured in organ concertos played between the acts); double-sized kettle-drums, especially borrowed from the Tower of London and rife with historical significance; and trombones. The latter were virtually unknown in England at this point, and would have been played by a trio of visiting German trombonists — Handel was also to use trombones in Israel in Egypt, written and produced in the same season. Most unusual of all is a carillon, of which Jennens reports:
Mr. Handel’s head is more full of Maggots than ever: I found yesterday in his room a very queer Instrument, which He calls Carillon (Anglice a Bell), and says some call it a Tubalcain, I suppose because it is both in the make and tone like a set of Hammers striking upon Anvils. ‘Tis play’d upon with Keys like a harpsichord, and with this Cyclopean Instrument he designs to make poor Saul stark mad.
The instrument was specially commissioned by Handel, but unfortunately does not survive — nor does a similar instrument used by Mozart in The Magic Flute. They are clearly both forerunners of the celeste, made famous in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Handel used his carillon again in L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, there to denote the "merry bells" of the city. In Saul, Handel uses it to be true to the Biblical account: the women’s welcome song is described in the Bible as being accompanied by a shalish or sistrum, an instrument made of metal rods hit by metal hammers, like Handel’s “Tubalcain” (so named for the first blacksmith, from Genesis). For our performances we are using a modern celeste, the mechanics being similar to what Handel must have had, and the sound appropriately bright. An account after the first performance by the artist William Kent includes a reference to “some stops in the Harpsichord that are little bells, I thought it had been some squirrels in a cage" (arguably not the response Handel expected!).
All of these instruments were used by Handel to evoke the time of Saul and David, and to heighten the drama. Other unique features of the work include having a bass singer as the lead character, very rare on the operatic stage, and a first for Handel. Many have suggested that Handel's own breakdown of the previous year contributed to his characterization of the manic ruler.
Handel’s dramatization is described by the Saul scholar Ruth Smith as “breathtakingly inventive.” In taking drama from the opera to the oratorio stage, Handel relied on the audience having the libretto in hand: they were expected to follow along, and “stage directions” were included in order to help them imagine the action. [We hope you too will follow the libretto provided here.] The audience would have identified to some extent with the emotional upheaval of the characters on stage, and perhaps more generally with the themes of leadership, succession, and nationhood, many of which resonated in the machinations of English history. The anniversary of Charles I’s execution, for example, was honoured with a solemn service each year in London, the prescribed reading for which was David’s lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan, a connection the audience would have fully understood.