Festival fever, Kosky style

A lavish scene in Handel’s oratorio, Saul, at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2015. Photo: Bill-Cooper

ACCLAIMED theatre and opera director Barrie Kosky is returning to Australia next year to direct a spectacular production of Handel’s oratorio, Saul, for the Adelaide Festival.

The 18th century masterpiece by Handel explores the Old Testament story of King Saul and his people, who were terrorised by Goliath until the unknown hero David kills him.

Kosky, 48, was born in Melbourne and launched his career with his avant garde Gilgul Theatre productions of Der Dybbuk and The Operated Jew in the 1990s, moved to Europe in 2001 to head the Schauspielhaus Vienna before taking up the role of artistic director of one of Germany’s main opera houses, the Komische Oper Berlin, in 2012.

In 2015 Kosky directed Handel’s Saul at England’s Glyndebourne Festival to rave reviews and it is this production that will be staged at the Adelaide Festival by the Glyndebourne Opera Festival under Kosky’s direction.

“This is very different to my Gilgul productions,” says Kosky with a laugh by phone from Berlin when the announcement was made by the Adelaide Festival.

“It’s a great thrill to be bringing it to the Adelaide Festival as it is the first time that one of my works will have been staged there.”

Kosky is looking forward to returning to Adelaide, where he ran a highly successful Adelaide Festival in 1996. The 2017 festival is the first under the joint baton of co-directors Rachel Healy and Neil Armfield, who will announce the full festival program in October.

Armfield, an experienced director, was in the audience for Saul’s opening night at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2015, and by interval he was so impressed with the production that he phoned Healy to say they should consider bringing the production to Adelaide When the performance ended he spoke to Kosky about staging Saul in Adelaide and they soon agreed.

The cast will include bass-baritone Christopher Purves reprising the title role of Saul he played at Glyndebourne, American counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey as David, and Australian tenor Adrian Strooper, a member of Kosky’s company at Komische Oper Berlin, as Saul’s son Jonathan.

British soprano Mary Bevan will be joined by Australia’s Taryn Fiebig as Saul’s daughters Merab and Micha. The inimitable Kanen Breen will play the Witch of Endor and Stuart Jackson is the High Priest.

All the dancers will travel from overseas, while the chorus is drawn from Australia and the orchestra is the Adelaide Symphony.

There will have four performances of Saul at the Adelaide Festival Centre on March 3, 5, 7 and 9.

Kosky describes Handel’s oratorio, which was written in English, as opera in drag.

“Its triumph, joy, madness, death, rage … what more do you want in a night at the opera?” he asks.
“The story of Saul is one of the most dramatic stories from the Old Testament. Handel wrote this as an oratorio, but it was not written to be staged because he was not allowed to present Bible stories on the stage at that time.

“It is not an exploration of Jewish religion or culture, but stems from Handel’s interest in the Old Testament.”

Kosky says that during the past 20 years there have only been three or four productions of Handel’s Saul staged around the world.

“It gives the director enormous freedom to invent and fantasise many elements of the story,” says Kosky, who relished the opportunity to utilise his trademark physical style.

Supported by evocative designs from Katrin Lea Tag, Kosky delves into Handel’s score to create a dreamscape and a nightmare world as a backdrop for a mythic tale of a Lear-like mad king and his crumbling family dynasty.

Handel’s characterisations of Saul and David, and his portrayal of the battle of David and Goliath, are among the German composer’s most powerful and vivid.

South Australia’s Arts Minister Jack Snelling says: “It’s extremely exciting to have Barrie Kosky’s Saul coming to the 2017 Adelaide Festival. It will not only bring in a huge number of interstate and overseas travellers, but it will also provide an incredible opportunity for the local artists who get to perform alongside some of the world’s best opera singers and baroque musicians.”

Saul is at the 2017 Adelaide Festival on March 3, 5, 7 & 9. Tickets on sale from August 19. Bookings: www.adelaidefestival.com.au.

REPORT by Danny Gocs