Music Director Nicholas McGegan (at podium), soprano Yulia Van Doren, center, and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale perform Handel’s “Saul.” (Courtesy Frank Wing)

Philharmonia Baroque players thrill in ‘Saul’

Handel’s epic oratorio gets heroic treatment

Throughout his tenure as music director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan has excelled in the large-scale works of Handel.

He did it again Saturday evening at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, leading a spectacular concert performance of the composer’s “Saul.”

This 1738 oratorio for orchestra, chorus and a large cast of vocal soloists tells the epic Old Testament story of the title character, a king brought low by his own paranoia, envy, and all-around peevishness. (Yes, apparently there’s one like him in every era.)

In this case, the object of Saul’s fury is the heroic — and much younger — David, who has captivated the hearts of the Israelites by slaying the giant Goliath. When his subjects begin heaping praise on David, Saul goes into a kind of manic overdrive.

As the king becomes increasingly unhinged, Handel’s score, with libretto by Charles Jennens, takes the audience through scenes of battle, public scorn, behind-the-scenes plotting and supernatural interventions. (Remarkably, for its era, Saul’s daughters, Merab and Michal, comment on his mental illness with startling insight.)

Handel illustrates each episode with thrilling inventiveness, from the solo arias to the compact symphonies and choral outbursts that further illustrate the action.

Saturday’s performance, which repeats Friday in San Francisco and Saturday in Palo Alto to close Philharmonia’s 38th season, found McGegan and ensemble in top form, powering through the two hour, 50-minute score with brisk, unflagging energy.

The orchestra played heroically, with standout solo work from flutist Janet See, cellist Phoebe Carrai, harpsichordist Hanneke van Proosdij, and trombonists Greg Ingles, Erik Schmalz and Mack Ramsey. Organist Jory Vinikour doubled on keyboard glockenspiel for the Act 1 Symphony for Carillons.

The cast was first-rate. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen gave a strong, shapely performance as David. Cohen’s a rising star; a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, he’ll return to The City this summer as Medoro in the company’s production of Handel’s “Orlando.” Saturday’s performance offered a captivating example of his vocal gifts.

Robust bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch thundered appropriately, relishing every moments of Saul’s badness, and sopranos Sherezade Panthaki (Michal) and Yulia Van Doren (Merab) made vivid impressions as the daughters he uses as bargaining chips. Tenor Aaron Sheehan was eloquent as Saul’s unfortunate son, Jonathan. Tenor Jonathan Smucker and bass-baritone Christian Pursell made effective contributions in various supporting roles.

It’s impossible to overstate the brilliance of Bruce Lamott’s Philharmonia Chorale, but suffice it to say that this 25-member mixed chorus sounded tremendous as the Chorus of Israelites. From gentle laments to scornful outbursts despairing over the future of their nation, they serve heroically as the conscience of “Saul.”

REVIEW

Handel’s Saul

Presented by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Friday, April 12

Tickets: $32 to $120

Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.philharmonia.org

Note: “Saul” repeats at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13 at First United Methodist Church, 625 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto.

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