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A NEW HANDEL ON 'SAUL' : Oratorio to Be Staged by Irvine Camerata Is as Relevant Today as It Was 250 Years Ago

April 29, 1993|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who contributes often to The Times Orange County Edition.

To make a long story short, boy slays ogre, king gets jealous, drives boy to destruction. To make a short story long, composer steps in three millennia later, writes masterpiece of Baroque dramatic oratorio, masterpiece takes another 250 years to reach Southern California.

The boy is David, the ogre is Goliath and the king is Saul, which also is the title of the oratorio written by George Frideric Handel in 1739 and being performed Wednesday, May 5, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. UC Irvine Dean of Fine Arts Robert Hickok--who conducted the American premiere of "Saul" in Brooklyn 32 years ago--will lead the Irvine Camerata in what he believes is the work's first local performance.

So why'd it take so long to get here?

"When most performing groups think of Handel, they think of 'The Messiah,' and there's a good reason," Hickok explained during a recent interview. "The editions of the other oratorios are so bastardized that it's extremely difficult for a modern conductor to make much sense (of them). Deciding what Handel wanted requires a certain amount of guesswork."

But Hickok is convinced that the reasons for presenting "Saul"--especially now--outweigh any potential problems. "What could be more relevant today than 'Saul?,' " he asked. "A wonderful chorus begins the second act: 'Envy! eldest born of hell/Cease in human breast to dwell.' Saul attempts two murders, David and his own son, Jonathan. That growing desperation, that kind of psychopathic behavior and violence, is all around us. If you just happen to be in the wrong place these days, you end up dead."

When Hickok presented the American premiere of "Saul" and, two years later, conducted it at Carnegie Hall with the Brooklyn College Festival Chorus, he used photostats of the original manuscript and of Handel's actual conducting score, and felt he "came up with a pretty good concept of what Handel wanted."

There's evidence, however, that even Handel wasn't sure what he wanted. Indications of entrances and exits, for instance, and stage directions such as "Saul throws javelin at David," suggest that the composer was thinking operatically, rather than in terms of the oratorio he ended up presenting.

"Saul" certainly requires a larger orchestra than any other Handel oratorio, sumptuous forces that provide such crucial atmospheric and dramatic effects as joyous bells in the welcoming scene, and thematic material evoking, according to Hickok's notes, the "arrogant stomp of the monster atheist" Goliath.

Finding a substitute for the archaic carillon (which Handel is rumored to have invented for "Saul") presented a special problem. "No glockenspiel has the proper range," Hickok explained. "The only instruments I've discovered that work are the Parsifal bells, manufactured for Wagner's 'Parsifal.' " The ever-resourceful Hickok came up with a new solution to the old problem: He'll be using the nine-member handbell choir from Christ College, Irvine.

The same librettist, Charles Jennens, was responsible for "The Messiah" and "Saul" but Hickok has observed a fundamental difference: The story of Christ is told obliquely; he never appears as a human being. But "in 'Saul,' you have real drama with character development. 'Saul' is extremely tragic, often compared to 'King Lear.' The great king goes mad, disintegrates till he hits bottom."

David's treatment of the Amalekite--who mercifully finishes off the wounded Saul, then dutifully reports the king's demise and bears his crown to David--may seem a tad harsh to mortal eyes. Hickok's production renders the scene more palatable.

"Handel says to kill (the Amalekite) right on stage," Hickok said. 'We just have him leave. It's a concert setting, so we have entrances and exits. Whatever Handel says, we're not throwing javelins."

A performance of "Saul" in its entirety might run 4 1/2 hours. Characterizing Handel as "ruthless" when it came to cutting his own music for performances, Hickok said he felt justified in trimming more than an hour for the Irvine Camerata production.

Soloists will include baritone Martin Wright as Saul, countertenor Brian Asawa as David, tenor Bruce Johnson as Jonathan and sopranos Jennifer Foster Smith as Michal and Patricia Prunty as Merab.

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