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A Viewer's Guide to Saul


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Whether in churches, concert halls, or even occasionally in freewheeling sing-a-longs, Handel's Messiah seems ubiquitous during the Christmas season. But this weekend, as part of the Twelfth Night Festival, the Choir of Trinity Wall Street will present another of Handel’s sacred oratorios: Saul. Saul will be costumed, lit, and staged as an opera—very different from how it would have been presented in Handel’s day.

Saul tells the story of the biblical King Saul and his successor, David, as recorded in the First Book of Samuel. Handel composed Saul in 1738, at a pivotal moment in his career: he was in the final stages of recovery from a stroke that affected his right hand and mental state. Saul was also his first collaboration with librettist Charles Jennens, with whom he would create Messiah and Israel in Egypt.

During the first half of his career, Handel wrote and produced primarily Italian operas. But by 1732 Handel could see that the music world was changing. Elaborately costumed operas were expensive, and Italian singers were hard to come by in London. Handel turned to a newer musical form, the oratorio.

Oratorios are large-scale compositions featuring solos, choruses, and orchestras. The name is derived from the oratory of the church of St. Philip Neri in Rome where the musical form originated. Unlike opera, in most oratorios the characters do not interact. Additionally, oratorios were presented as simple concerts (not much in the way of costumes, set, or staging) and were therefore suitable for production during Lent.  In 1732, Handel composed the world’s first English-language oratorio, Esther. During the 1730s Handel continued to compose Italian opera, though he wrote two additional English oratorios, Deborah and Athalia.

Charles Jennens wrote the libretto for Saul in 1735, basing his text on Abraham Cowley’s poem Davideis, A Sacred Poem of the Troubles of David. (During the performance, listen for Merab’s scorn for David’s lowly upbringing. This is Cowley’s addition to the story and not found in Samuel.) Handel’s focus on Saul intensified after the 1738 King’s Theatre opera season was cancelled due to a lack of subscribers. Saul debuted on January 16, 1739 and was a success, running for six performances.

Trinity’s production of Saul will take place in St. Paul’s Chapel on January 2 and 4. Performance-level table seating — as though one were in Saul’s banquet hall — and balcony seating are available. Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts, will conduct. The production is directed by James Darrah. Costumes are by Robert and Rachel Danes, designers whose children sing in the Trinity Youth Chorus.

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