EDINBURGH FESTIVAL '99': A modern biblical epic

CLASSICAL Saul Usher Hall

SOME ARTS festivals are put together by committees, but the Edinburgh Festival has always been the brainchild of one person. Brian McMaster is now in his eighth year as director, and it's easy to see who his friends are. One of them is Sir Charles Mackerras. The Australian conductor has been a regular at the Festival for some time, usually purveying his individual view of "authentic" performance. His Lucia di Lammermoor with the Hanover Band, two years ago, was one of the best events in recent times. This year, McMaster gave him the opening concert, a performance of Handel's miraculous Saul.

Authenticity was severely limited, for Mackerras had to cope with the 150-strong Festival Chorus and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who, with all their dapper stylishness, play on modern instruments. The stage set- up prepared us for one of those old, deadly, reverential Handel oratorios of the past, all sanctimonious rectitude and wobbly soloists. But it's now fashionable and probably a good deal more "authentic" to serve up Handel fresh, snappy, ironic and sexy.

Mackerras did not quite do this. His soloists were not exactly the stuff that irony and sex are made of. The only one who was - Joan Rodgers as Merab - seemed a bit out of place. Her smooth, sensuous tone lacked the brilliance for this spiteful part; the coloratura was slithery, and the air "Capricious man", with its viperish staccato, was soft-edged.

By some paradox of cross-dressing, the sexiest of the lot was David Daniels as David. This amazing artist looks like a grocer's assistant but sings in a high, expressive alto, almost a soprano, that is enormously flexible; he can do the spikiest coloratura, but he can also project a warm, sweet serenity, which can became almost childlike. The sentiment was overwhelming; a woman, more worried about good taste, could not have done it.

Lisa Milne, as Michal, is a real Handel singer. She could be fluid and honeyed, she could flash and sparkle, she had smashing roulades, and her mezza voce in "From this unhappy day" gave a vivid impression of horror. The other big celebrities - Ian Bostridge as a well-bred Schubertian Jonathan and Bryn Terfel as a hollering Verdian Saul - gave less pleasure. Mackerras kept things spinning along, but the modern violins sounded too velvety and David Nicholson's flute (in "Fell rage and black despair") was obviously equipped with the Boehm system.

The chorus gave a big, generalised performance, purring and roaring and barking, but there were too many of them to sound intimate. Nevertheless, Saul was a wonderful choice for this ritual sell-out; a copper-bottomed masterpiece that is performed, alas, too seldom.

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