Anyone who was lucky enough to see David Sefton’s final program as artistic director of the Adelaide Festival last year, featuring Tanz Wuppertal Pina Bausch, the National Theatre of Scotland’s acclaimed James Plays, and a jaw-dropping arena spectacular by France’s Groupe F, will know that it was always going to be a tough act to follow. Sefton’s successors, Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, have clearly risen to the challenge, coming out swinging with an early announcement that their inaugural Festival is to be headlined by visionary Australian director Barrie Kosky’s opera smash-hit, Saul.
Premiered in 2015 by the UK’s Glyndebourne Opera, critical praise for Kosky’s setting of George Frederick Handel’s dramatic oratorio was unanimously incandescent. The production earned five-star raves from even the most finickity of British critics, including the notoriously acid-tongued Rupert Christiansen of The Daily Telegraph. He described the work as “utterly enthralling”, while The Guardian’s Andrew Clemens declared Kosky’s Saul “one of Glyndebourne’s finest shows,” with Michael Church of The Independent describing it as “a landmark production.”
The reaction of the Glyndebourne audience was equally unequivocal in its approval, as Neil Armfield described. “There was a sense of pleasure in the air of the theatre. It was a completely euphoric, rapturous atmosphere,” Armfield told Daily Review. “The audience were stamping their feet during the curtain call; we were all turned into a bunch of kids in the best possible way. This show freed us all, somehow.”
Written in 1738, this late Baroque masterpiece tells the Biblical story recounting the turbulent relationship between Saul, the first King of Israel, and his eventual successor, David, a charismatic and noble warrior most famously remembered for slaying the Philistine giant Goliath. Originally conceived as an ecclesiastical concert piece, for performance in the church, it is only relatively recently that the piece has been adapted for the stage. Kosky’s interpretation reimagines Saul as a an “18th-century fantasy” featuring sumptuous costumes and opulent scenery, placed on a desolate, inky-black stage.
“Both Neil Armfield and I felt strongly that there are singular Australian artists, who are lauded internationally but who don’t get seen as frequently in Australia as they should” – Rachel Healy
For those who believe in fate, Armfield came perilously close to not seeing the production, after a dearth of taxi’s in the sleepy British village of Lewes – the nearest place to the remote, rurally situated Glyndebourne Opera House – forced him to hitch-hike. Fortunately, thanks to the generosity of some fellow opera lovers, Armfield arrived in time for curtain up, and by the interval was already convinced that Kosky’s extraordinary accomplishment was the ideal centrepiece of the 2017 Adelaide Festival.
Securing the production has been no easy task, however, as Kosky related by phone from his home in Berlin. “When Neil bounded up to me in the interval, and he said he had to get this show, immediately I was worried there might not be enough time to make it happen. I wasn’t skeptical, but it’s quite a tricky production to organise, there’s a tremendous amount to consider. But Neil and Rachel have really hit the ground running and have done a fantastic job of getting it organised so quickly.”
The production will receive just four performances at the beginning of next year’s Festival in March, and Armfield and Healy expect demand for tickets to be high, with good reason. Not only is this a critically acclaimed production, but it is also provides a rare opportunity for Australian audiences to see a Kosky work on home turf.
Despite his superb global reputation, Kosky productions are now seldom seen in Australia, but the venerated director said he was extremely excited to be bringing such a high-calibre work back home, adding, “It just feels right.” While Kosky was artistic director of the Adelaide Festival in 1996, a production directed by him has never been presented there. “It’s a very wonderful but strange thing to think that after 20 long years I’m actually going back to Adelaide, for the first time, with my work. It’s a great thrill,” he said.
Rachel Healy also shared her pride at mounting this exciting homecoming for Kosky. “Both Neil and I felt strongly that there are some really singular Australian artists, who are lauded internationally but who really don’t get seen as frequently in Australia as they should,” Healy said. “Part of the role of an international Festival is to keep abreast of those really remarkable artists who are making interesting work and work that has global significance. To have a work like this, which would earn its place in any Festival, is a wonderful thing, but that it’s been created by a remarkable Australian, I think is what a Festival like Adelaide’s is set up to do.”
The production will feature a cast of international opera stars and homegrown talent including soprano Taryn Fiebig and tenor Kanen Breen. Armfield and Healy have announced the production two months ahead of the rest of their debut program to ensure inter-state and international patrons can organise their travel to Adelaide.