Saul - The Sixteen - Barbican Hall, 22 November 2011
The Barbican planners cocked up last night. As Handel competed with Opera North's Queen of Spades in the main theatre for the same punters, predictably neither sold out. I suspect the Handel fans were the best-behaved. No mobile phones, no crackly sweeties, no aria-applause, barely a cough - I haven't seen manners like this since Bayreuth. But then Harry Christophers didn't leave a millisecond of fidgeting space in either half - his greatest achievement perhaps being to integrate the musical interludes into the drama in a natural, flowing way. The pace was relentless but the focus was total, with just a brisk twenty minute interval cleaving the three and a half hours.
There wasn't really anything in the way of staging - unless you count Sarah Connolly sporting trousers for the role of David, or a bit of hand waving here and there. But the tightly-knit ensemble still managed to eke real dramatic tension from the score, aided by one of Handel's greatest librettos. Christopher Purves bent his voice ably around Saul's lightning mood swings and sudden rages while Sarah Connolly was all calm and meditative intimacy. Once she'd found her voice, Elizabeth Atherton lent virtuosic flair to the shallow Merab, and Joelle Harvey sang Michal with winning sweetness and purity.
But what made this performance stand out from other recent versions was the staggering choral singing, courtesy of The Sixteen (actually eighteen on this occasion). Perfect balance and immaculate enunciation were only the start. Several of them - Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, Stuart Young, Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan and Tom Raskin - stepped out to perform the smaller roles, which they did with a competence and conviction that would shame many a 'name' soloist. No wonder the ensemble work is so immaculate when the voices are of this calibre. The instrumental work was slightly less crisp in some quarters, but the energetic pace and textural variegation (harp, carillon, trombones) overshadowed any technical quibbles.
There may be starrier singers and more 'authentic' bands out there, but this was the most complete and engrossing performance you could hope to hear. Anyone who opted for Tchaikovsky last night missed out.