O.C. MUSIC REVIEW : Drama Does Not Always Play in 'Saul' : Conductor Robert Hickok instills Handel's work with theatrical sense--sometimes with impressive results, sometimes not--at Irvine Barclay Theatre.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Hickok conducted the Irvine Camerata, soloists and a period-sized orchestra of modern instruments in a problematic performance of Handel's dramatic oratorio "Saul" on Wednesday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

Billed as a Southern California premiere, this "Saul" appeared to be substantially complete, with Hickok observing the cuts recommended by Handel specialist Winton Dean of the David-Jonathan scene and Merab's aria in which she changes her earlier haughty opinion of David. Scholars or others may dispute these claims.

To enhance the sense of the drama, the principal singers made stage entrances and exits and reacted with varying degrees of conviction to each other and to the text. Secondary characters, drawn from the chorus, stepped to the front to sing solos when required. The Ghost of Samuel, raised by the Witch of Endor, appeared in an opened light panel above the stage on the audience's left.

To sharpen the developing drama further, Hickok minimized or sometimes even eliminated pauses between individual numbers. Even so, the program ran a little over 3 1/2 hours, including intermissions.

The separate items, however, he treated with great and conflicting latitude, sometimes with impressive results. Sometimes not.

His choices of slow tempos, soft dynamics and smoothing of choral entrances suggested a style of playing Baroque music that recent historically minded practitioners have, for better or worse, rejected or strongly modified.

Unfortunately, with its ebb and flow of interest, he did not make a strong case for such an approach.

The crisp attacks he demanded of the orchestral players he almost always denied the chorus, holding back its power for special moments and lessening tension and momentum.

The orchestra, too, he could dampen down or make ponderous.

Still, an important historical practice was observed. All the soloists stylishly embellished repeats in their da capa arias.

Countertenor Brian Asawa, as a finely expressive David, also introduced some short, tasteful vocal cadenzas in other places.

Martin Wright made an essentially lyric baritone persuasively serve the dramatic duties of Saul. Bruce Johnson, however, too often reined in his tenor, with pale results, as Jonathan.

Jennifer Foster Smith sang Michal with warmth, conviction and agility. Patricia Prunty was a powerful, disdainful Merab. Kerry O'Brien and Kenneth Knight made strong contributions as the Witch of Endor and Samuel, respectively.

The 30-member Camerata sang with clarity of enunciation and evenness of tone. The orchestra, also at about 30 members, played alertly.

Harpsichordist John Steele Ritter offered fluent continuo accompaniment, as did cellist Ian McKinnell. Organist Ronald Huntington was struggling either with a recalcitrant instrument or with digital inflexibility.

Members of the Concert Handbells of Christ College Irvine served as a not entirely adequate substitute for the carillon accompaniment in the welcoming chorus.

* CONDUCTOR'S FINALE: Richard Raub will lead his last Orange Coast Singers concert Saturday. F23

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