Goliath's dismembered head – all shocked eyes and stark Cubist angles – had been staring out from posters across Cambridge in the lead-up to this production of Samuel Hogarth's opera. The title excites images of epic heroism, the pure boy triumphing over the exotic and threatening other. Not to be circumscribed by the confines of such a well-known story, Hogarth, the librettist Guy Perry and the director Sinead O'Neill presented a subtler, more ambiguous, and in the end more disturbing struggle. Goliath only appeared as a head on a stick, while the drama centres on the ambivalent relationship between an ambitious David and a troubled Saul, beautifully sung by the bass Thomas Faulkner.
Off to an explosive start, Saul burst in and fell to the ground to the sounds of a bold tutti gesture, dominated by fortissimo tom-toms. The music was approachable and uncompromising – approachable thanks partly to Hogarth's interest in jazz, which, he says, "lurks in the background", and partly thanks to the strongly individualised musical material, whereby characters have their own harmonic areas.
The clearest of these was the whole-tone harmony of David and Simon Ponsford's clean countertenor also set David apart from the rest of the men. Perhaps necessarily, this whole-tone writing gave way to some stunning unaccompanied guitar, when David, mute, practised his enchantment on Saul. Other signposts included the memorable wind figure for Goliath, and the tom-tom gesture that announced Saul's fits.
The music was uncompromising in the sense that Hogarth did not always give us what we expected. This was particularly the case in the love scene between Saul's daughter, Merab, and David's brother, Eliab. As this was the penultimate scene, one might have expected the drama to breathe slightly here in preparation for the denouement; this could have been accompanied by a harmonic relaxation. However, the heights of the love scene were satisfyingly followed in the last scene by the appearance of the triumphant David.
The chapel of Queen's College was strewn with desert rocks as the entire nave became the stage for this new vision of an old story. The immediacy of being only feet away from the singers far outweighed the occasionally less clear words when their backs were turned. Fantastically sung by students and young professionals from Cambridge and London, and conducted by Hogarth himself, this was strong and exciting new opera.
Kim Ashton, composer, CambridgeReuse content