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Mad About Saul 

Among Charlotte Symphony's popular Neighborhood Concerts, this season renamed Baroque and Beyond, last Thursday's at Halton Theater must be counted among the all-time best. This wasn't one of those traveling aperitifs. You know: strategically shortened concerts featuring agreeable classics at agreeable prices?

Nope, this was Handel's Saul, a mighty oratorio that lasts longer than most concerts on the Classics Series, let alone the Pops. Forget about the extended rehearsal time for the contracted musicians, you've got to bring in a bushel basket of talented singers to act out a dozen different roles and negotiate George Frideric's treacherous vocal lines.

Of course, you also need to fill the stage with a chorus specially prepped for this single performance, but with the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte in ready formation -- and Scott Allen Jarrett, their leader, wielding the baton -- choral excellence was the least of my concerns. How wonderful, then, to find a set of soloists at Halton Theater that outclassed most of the guest soloists that maestro Perick invites to the Belk!

By all odds, the performance should have paled beside the recent Rene Jacobs recording that won the 2006 Gramophone Award in the Baroque Vocal category. Not at all. In the title role, baritone Philip Cutlip at times outsang his counterpart, Gidon Saks, on the Harmonia Mundi award winner though, in extremis, he wasn't quite as thunderous or insane. As David, countertenor John Gaston was fully the equal of Lawrence Zazzo, while soprano Amanda Forsythe actually surpassed Rosemary Joshua as David's beloved Michal -- by a gloriously decisive margin. And she bathed Halton loudly and generously with her sweetness, I'm sure, to the topmost seats in the balcony.

Vocal quality of this Saul extended to such cameos as Emily Marvosh's portrayal of the Witch of Endor and Troy Robertson's brief stint as the Amelekite who reports the mad king's death. Anne Harley, who gave a solid performance as Merab, Michal's sister, did some nifty stage direction that added to the drama. I especially liked her handling of the eerie Witch of Endor episode -- culminating with Marvosh, dressed in black, pointing silently upstage to Samuel, conjured up from the dead at Saul's command. Like the Spirit of Christmas Future pointing to Scrooge's grave.

Symphony gave a fine account of themselves, particularly when the music called for brass, percussion, or Amy Whitehead's flute. Yet I was thankful that I hadn't revisited the Jacobs recording before the live performance. The faster pace of the CD adds to the urgency and excitement.

Anyway, I fell so hard for Forsythe that such imperfections were washed away. Wouldn't mind hearing Marvosh again, either. Or just looking.

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