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Carl Nielsen: Saul og David, FS 25
Johan Reuter (Saul), Niels Jorgen Riis (David), Ann Petersen (Michal), Michael Kristensen (Jonathan), Leif Jone Olberg (Abner), Susanne Resmark (The Witch of Endor), Signe Sneh Schreiber (Abishai), The Royal Danish Opera Orchestra and Chrous, Michael Schønwandt (conductor), David Pountney (director), Robert Innes Hopkins (set and costume designer), Davy Cunningham (lighting designer), Rebekka Lund (choreographer), Peter Borgwardt (video producer)
Recorded live at the Royal Danish Opera (May 2015) – 132’
Dacapo 2110412 – Booklet and titles in Danish and English

Carl Nielsen’s Saul og David (“Saul and David”) and his other opera, the comedy Maskerade, were given new productions in Copenhagen in 2015 as part of the composer’s sesquicentennial celebrations. This DVD of the Danish Royal Opera’s production of the biblical drama would be a decent introduction to a rarely-performed work, but the quality of the product, with endless blips and glitches, is a barrier to enjoyment.

The plot: the work opens on with urgent, dramatic music as King Saul awaits the arrival of the priest Samuel to make an offering and bless his warriors as they prepare for battle. He impetuously initiates the ceremony despite the protests of his son, Jonathan. Samuel arrives and declares Saul in violation of sacred laws and states that he will lose his title. Saul curses his god while Jonathan introduces his friend David, whose singing soothes the king. David soon meets Saul’s daughter, Michal, and they fall in love.

In the second act David volunteers to fight the Philistine, Goliath. (The fight occurs offstage.) The victorious David is hailed by the people. Saul is envious and banishes David. In the third act David demonstrates his positive feelings for Saul by sneaking into Saul’s tent and stealing his spear, thus displaying how he could have harmed the king but refrained. Saul is briefly mollified, but then the ailing Samuel arrives to anoint David as the new king (just as he had anointed Saul years earlier). Samuel dies and Saul orders the arrest of David and Michal, but since David is now the anointed leader, the guards let them leave.

In Act IV, the embattled Saul asks the Witch of Endor to contact the spirit of Samuel and ask for guidance. Samuel appears and foretells the oncoming deaths in battle of both Saul and Jonathan. Saul comes upon his dying son and orders his general, Abner, to kill him (Saul). Abner refuses and Saul kills himself. David and Michal arrive; after observances for the dead, the people hail their new king. Clenched fists and assault weapons are brandished.

Producer David Pountney has set the work in the present day, with projected visuals of conflict in that part of the world. As Pountney states in his notes “it is not entirely clear whether the characters in this story are Arabs or Israelis”. This seems disingenuous - he seems to be counting on the audience not knowing who Saul and David were (is he right?) In any event, the detailed updating often vitiates the power of the mythic story. An example: the Witch of Endor is a bicycle-riding chain-smoker, living is a garishly cluttered room. She is the epitome of a B-movie fraudulent fortune-teller, a source of cheap laughs. Yet in the opera she really does bring Samuel back from the dead. By the way, the role is a juicy (albeit brief) bit for a power mezzo – and Susanne Resmark does it full justice.

Modernizing is also intrusive in Act III when the declining Samuel is wheeled in on a gurney, complete with IV apparatus. The powerful confrontation is further damaged by a barrage of electronic glitches.

The performances are on the whole impressive. Johan Reuter is one of today’s top baritones and he gives a thoroughly committed performance in the title role. Niels Jorgen Riis has a tenor that glows ecstatically; his voice, ideal for the role, makes up for the fact that he hardly looks like the boy David. (But any boyish performer would be unlikely to be able to handle the vocal aspect.)

Jonathan is the other tenor role; Michael Kristensen is fine when placed advantageously re the microphones (live performance recording has its pitfalls). Bass Morten Stauggard is most impressive as Samuel. The young Norwegian baritone, Leif Jone Olberg, displays a notably attractive voice as Abner.

The focus of the work is power relationships among men as one of the protagonists falls apart. This doesn’t leave much room for the love interest (David arguably has two such - and a sister and brother to boot). Ann Petersen is a sympathetic Michal despite her glossy fashionista appearance.

Acts II and IV have orchestral preludes which provide the music for dance interludes. These do not come across very clearly but the choreography action seems to be inspired by Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table of 1932 as it portrays the futility of multicultural diplomacy.

Overall Saul and David is a powerful work that succeeds in its aim of expressing a mythic tale despite a production that goes off base at times. It’s a pity that the DVD is so flawed.

Michael Johnson




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