Riveting: Christopher Purves, centre, as the title character in Saul (Photo: Alastair Muir)
Despite the occasional descent into cliché (the smackingly sexual kiss that Jonathan plants on the lips of the reluctant David seems opportunistic, because it is never followed through), there is little of that slightly hysterical hyperactivity that pervades inferior productions of baroque works. A rich poetry emerges instead, notably in a stunning opening tableau which set me gasping and a weirdly poignant vision of Saul’s visit to the hermaphroditic Witch of Endor, during which milky wisdom is suckled from the crone’s withered dug.
Magnificent performances have been drawn from the entire cast. The young American tenor Paul Appleby makes a sweetly demure Jonathan, while Benjamin Hulett is vibrantly robust of voice as a deformed court jester impersonating multiple roles in the story. On the distaff, Lucy Crowe and Sophie Bevan vie in singing of Golden Age charm and accomplishment as the rivalrous sisters – Crowe’s Merab is all acid and venom, Bevan’s Michal all sugar and spice.
But there are three undoubted stars. Iestyn Davies just gets better and better: I don’t think I have have ever heard a counter-tenor in an opera house sounding more warmly radiant or tonally secure, and his David impressively combines princely dignity with intense melancholy, quite magically so in his great lament “Mourn, Israel.”
He meets his match in Christopher Purves, riveting as the volatile Lear-like figure of Saul: Purves may not be the most rigorous of stylistic purists, but the sheer vividness of his acting and his enunciation carries all before him.
And finally, there is Glyndebourne’s stupendous chorus. In many respects they are the hub and motor of the score, and they rise to the challenge not only of delivering Handel’s mighty fugues with clarity and precision, but also of executing Kosky’s intricate direction. Bravissimi.
All praise is also due to a feisty troupe of six dancers, choreographed by Otto Pichler, and to Ivor Bolton and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: their sublime playing of the Dead March, in front of a heart-stopping image of the aftermath of battle, provided one of the most overwhelmingly emotional episodes in this utterly enthralling performance.
Until 29 August. Box office 01273 815000, www.glyndebourne.org