CARL NIELSEN: Saul og David
07 April 2016
Dave BillingeNielsen finished the score of Saul and David in 1901
and in the following year wrote his Symphony No. 2 'The Four Temperaments'. Robert Simpson wisely noted that Saul and David
could be viewed as 'the two temperaments' because it deals with the contrast between the unstable and power-hungry Saul versus the happy and optimistic David. For the opera to work both these roles must be well sung by equally strong soloists. This is the case here with both Johan Reuter and Niels Jørgen Riis singing and acting their roles really well. As is the way in the theatre the Devil usually has the best tunes and whilst David has some great arias it is Saul who has the powerful declamations which stay in the mind. The entire cast is strong but one must mention Susanne Resmark as The Witch of Endor whose role in allowing Saul to hear the words of the dead prophet Samuel from beyond the grave energises much of the final act. In David Pountney's version she is portrayed as a fairground fortune-teller who arrives on her bicycle and is not at all interested in what anyone says. She apparently cannot even hear the words of Samuel by which Saul is so deeply moved. Part way through the séance she loses interest and rides off on her bicycle into the ruined city streets outside. I suppose this is not too much of a distortion but the bicycle is rather risible and endangers the power of this climactic scene. Nielsen only wrote two operas and by common consent it is not Saul og David
that is most respected. Neither work gets the productions they deserve outside Denmark. We have to be thankful for this issue, whatever its shortcomings.I believe this is the first video of this opera
so far made available and the number of sound recordings is quite limited. My views are a mixture of delight at finally being able to watch a production of a work I have regarded very highly for many years, admiration for a magnificent cast putting their all into a remarkable piece of early Nielsen, and finally sadness that yet again the directorial decisions do much to damage the whole enterprise. Despite some good things in this staging it is ultimately overwhelmed by David Pountney's political agenda. The various confrontations are among the good things: Saul and David are two such disparate, one might also say desperate, characters that their meetings grip one's attention. The prophet Samuel clashes impressively with Saul at several points. David's moments with Mikal work well, as do his exchanges with Jonathan. Against this are a bicycle-riding Witch of Endor, Saul managing to impale himself on a convenient construction crane hook and Mikal dressed like a 1950s heiress despite the presence of some sort of resistance army all around. What depressed me most was the plethora of modern regietheater clichés like army uniforms, kalashnikovs, great-coats, dying characters on hospital drips, blocks of ruined flats and dancing where the score does not ask for it. I could go on. The upside of this performance is the quality of singing by both soloists and chorus and the magnificently powerful orchestra under the inspired direction of Michael Schønwandt. If one closes one's eyes and just listens then Nielsen's score comes over gloriously well. It is a pity DaCapo could not fund the issue of this production on Blu-ray because the sound in particular suffers with old-fashioned DTS5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1, compared to the high-resolution sound formats now available. The picture is not too bad but, whilst appreciating that recording companies are living through tough times, issuing a new production of a rare opera on an obsolete format is a missed opportunity.