Opera reviews: Handel’s Saul and Mahler’s Symphony No 8

Kosky brings a dazzling sense of visual drama to the oratorio.

The overture begins to a grey background with the severed head of the giant Goliath on the ground beside Iestyn Davies’s battle-traumatised David.

The curtain is then whipped up to an outburst of Hallelujahs from the jubilant Israelites over their victory against the Philistines.

On a long table, a riotous crowd in 18th century dress celebrate amongst cornucopias of fruit, flowers and slain animals.

The one person not rejoicing is Markus Brück’s King Saul, suddenly displaced in his people’s affections by a whipper snapper of a shepherd boy.

Saul’s madness is irrational and lethal.

The King attempts openly to kill the nation’s new favourite.

His son Jonathan is torn between obeying his father or betraying his friend David.

Counter tenor Davies captures the quiet authority of the young David, and his delivery of O Lord, whose mercies numberless is superb.

Saul’s daughters – haughty Merab and sweet-natured Michal – are sung by Karina Gauvin and Anna Devin, respectively.

Tenor Allan Clayton is an anguished Jonathan and baritone Brück follows the original Saul of Christopher Purves as the father from hell.

Tenor John Graham-Hall is suitably repellent as Witch of Endor.

Excellent playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under conductor Laurence Cummings.

There can be no better introduction to the spirit of the Proms than Mahler’s Symphony No 8 – popularly known as the Symphony of a Thousand because of the number of singers and musicians needed to fulfil its demands – in this case it’s more than 650.

Principal conductor to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård performed the colossal work as his farewell to the ensemble of which he has been principal conductor since 2012.

A resounding goodbye, indeed.

Three separate adult choruses from Cardiff and London, and the Southend Boys’ Choir and Southend Girls’ Choir, joined eight top soloists in a one hour 40 minute celebration of the work that Mahler wrote during an inspired eight weeks, describing it as “my gift to the nation.”

The first part, a setting of the ancient Latin hymn Veni, creator spiritus (Come, creator spirit), begins with a tumultuous blast of the organ, and is polyphonic in style.

In the second part, the soloists come into their own.

The words are from the climatic mystical chorus of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust.

The soloists become named characters, as the saints debate the nature of love.

The mood is increasingly ecstatic, as the poem takes us on an upward journey from forest to the heavens.

Excellent singing, especially from soprano Tamara Wilson, tenor Simon O’Neill and baritone Quinn Kelsey.

Most thrilling of all was hearing the voice of Joelle Harvey as Mater Gloriosa floating seraphically from the gallery.