Handel’s ‘Saul’ Oratorio: An Age-Old Story for Today

BY Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
May 30, 2019 Updated: May 30, 2019

The story opens with triumph: David has just slain the monstrous Goliath and returns to a joyous chorus of harmonious praise. But things soon take a turn for the treacherous.

For King Saul sits in his tent and starts to seethe with jealousy as David continues to take center stage. It is this seed of envy that sets off a drama that ends in tragedy.

George Frideric Handel’s “Saul” oratorio is one of his great masterpieces, which he premiered the same year as his “Israel in Egypt,” in 1739.

“The libretto is written by Charles Jennens, who also wrote the libretto for [Handel’s] “Messiah,” said Claudia Dumschat, conductor of The Church of the Transfiguration, by phone.

“It’s one of Handel’s most dramatic and, I think, his greatest oratorio,” Dumschat said.

On June 7, The Transfiguration Choirs, soloists, and chamber orchestra, conducted by Dumschat, will perform “Saul” at The Little Church Around the Corner, as part of its concert series.

Envy Brings a Downfall

It’s a rich story that reveals the complicated relationships between King Saul, his son Jonathan, his two daughters Michal and Merab, and the hero David—and is surprisingly relevant for modern times.

“It’s very pertinent to today’s age; there’s a lot of jealousy, and then people trying to get around the rules to keep their power,” Dumschat said. Envy brings about not just Saul’s downfall, but suffering to those around him. “The way that the oratorio is set does make you realize this.”

“The music is evocative of the emotions … David’s arias are set with integrity and kindness, and probably a little bit of naiveté. Saul’s arias are dark and brooding,” Dumschat said. “I love the instrumentation … It’s a beautiful piece.”

Dumschat had been in Jerusalem, the City of David, the past summer and returned to New York and a volunteer choir in time for a performance of “Saul.” As she conducted, she noticed countertenor and harp player David Yardley sitting beneath the church’s David window, playing the part of David, she felt it was a piece she had to do for their regular concert series.

The Production

The total material of the “Saul” oratorio comes to about three hours, but Handel would always cut and adapt the piece for different performances. Dumschat has put together a two-hour version for the June 7 performance.

The chorus performing is a combination of several different choir groups from the church, and the chamber orchestra will perform with early music instruments, including a celesta. The performance will be done in contemporary dress and is semi-staged by choreographer Jesse Obremski.

Epoch Times Photo
The Church of the Transfiguration’s Men and Boys Choir conducted by Claudia Dumschat at a rehearsal. (Church of the Transfiguration)

Soloist Joe Chappel will sing the part of Saul. The bass-baritone has performed with choirs across the city and on tour with concerts and operas. Countertenor and harp player David Yardley, who is also a composer, will sing the part of David.

The performance will also feature musicians Nina Berman, Bert Boone, Rob Colón, Alan Henriquez, Christina Kay, Nick Nesbitt, Leif Pedersen, and Erik Rasmussen.

If you haven’t heard “Saul” before and want to listen to parts of the oratorio before the performance, Dumschat suggests the choruses “Mourn, Israel, Mourn Thy Beauty Lost” and “Oh, Fatal Consequence of Rage.”

“It’s about human relationships, the reality of those relationships, and it’s eternal; the truth is eternal,” Dumschat said.

Handel’s “Saul” will be performed at the Church of the Transfiguration (“The Little Church Around the Corner”) at 1 East 29th St., on Friday, June 7, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online here or by phone at 212-684-4174, for $40 per adult, and $25 for students and seniors. 

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