Purcell’s opening sets Saul’s desolation in starkly graphic style: the three voices enter quietly, one by one, building up the sense of tense theatricality with magical harmony to the first, chromatically dropping entries of ‘Forsaken Saul’: these build to a stunningly powerful climax. Saul demands in dramatic semi-recitative that the witch ‘call pow’rful arts together’ to raise up a departed spirit; the woman, ignorant of her visitor’s identity, desperately responds that she is fearful to do so, for ‘cruel Saul’ has ‘kill’d and murder’d all that were wise and could on spirits call’. Saul assures her that ‘No harm from Saul shall come to thee for this’, and the witch agrees to his request, asking who it is her visitor wishes to call. Saul replies that it is ‘Old Samuel’. The woman realises who Saul is, and that she will now die; her cries of ‘Alas’ are as powerful as any in Purcell’s output. Saul again reassures her and, asked what she can see, the woman describes ‘the gods ascending from below’ and ‘an old man mantled o’er’. Saul’s visit from the underworld has begun. Samuel angrily demands why he has been robbed of his rest to see ‘that which I hate’ and Saul explains his position, desperately asking in the most expressive music, ‘Oh! for pity’s sake, tell me, what shall I do.’ Samuel looks into the future and grimly replies that Saul’s army will be slain, his kingdom will fall, and that ‘tomorrow, thou and thy son shall be with me beneath’. (In the Bible all three of Saul’s sons are slain, and Saul, already injured, falls on his own sword rather than be taken by the Philistines). The closing chorus, setting just two words, ‘Oh! Farewell’, is a magical ending to one of the most remarkable compositions of the age.
from notes by Robert King ©
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