Saul & David
Saul & David
“Hugely recommended” Gramophone
A spectacular new production of Carl Nielsen's dramatic debut opera, Saul & David from 1901 – a production marking the Royal Danish Opera’s celebration of the composer's 150th anniversary in 2015.
King Saul, bitterly jealous of young David, who won the favour of the people by defeating the giant Goliath, is staged in a highly original fashion by acclaimed English director and Nielsen enthusiast David Pountney, who updates the Biblical story to our own time, lending it psychological and political undertones. The performance is conducted by Nielsen expert Michael Schønwandt and presents an array of Denmark's leading singers with Johan Reuter in the demanding role of King Saul, Niels-Jørgen Riis as David and Ann Petersen as his beloved Mikal.
Saul and David – an introduction
by Knud Ketting
Around New Year 1896-1897, when Carl Nielsen first felt mature enough to compose an opera, he began by studying the librettos of earlier composers. Then he dipped into world literature to find a suitable subject, and for a while considered among other possibilities setting Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to music.
However, a couple of years were to pass before Nielsen made his final choice of theme. At one point in 1898 he agreed with the author Einar Christiansen that the two of them should share the work on an opera with a libretto based on the Biblical account from the Old Testament of the encounter between King Saul and the young shepherd David. In January 1899 Einar Christiansen had his text ready – a text that suggests that Christiansen must have known of the earlier treatment of this subject in Denmark, an opera project (unfinished, it is true) with a text by Hans Christian Andersen and music by J.P.E. Hartmann.
Carl Nielsen only started working in earnest on the composition in the summer of 1899, and some of the new opera was written in Italy during a grant-funded stay in Rome with his wife Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen. Back in Denmark again, Nielsen continued his composing work alongside his job as a violinist in the Royal Danish Opera, and on 20 April 1901 he was able to end-date the fourth and last act of the opera.
In September 1901 Nielsen received a letter saying that the newly-written opera had been accepted for performance at the Royal Theatre. The performance material was made ready in the spring of 1902, and after the summer holiday came extensive rehearsals, mostly under the musical direction of the composer himself.
The premiere took place on 28 November 1902. In the title roles were the bass-baritone Niels Juel Simonsen as Saul and the tenor Vilhelm Herold as David. The reviews were mainly positive; but some of the reviewers pointed out that the lyrically conceived David perhaps emerged as musically underplayed compared with the energetic King Saul: “The main emphasis has been placed on the character of Saul; and David is on the other hand too insignificant, too lyrically diluted, light and mawkish, sweet and melodious,” wrote the reviewer in Socialdemokraten, for example, after the first performance.
It was perhaps a rather harshly drawn judgement. But the reviewer may well have been right inasmuch as the opera debutant Nielsen could in fact be said, with his strongly chorally-based work, to have moved some way in the direction of the oratorio genre.
In his staging David Pountney has wisely made allowances for this by in principle establishing the stage floor as the royal chamber in the palace, that is the area for the main characters, while the chorus is placed in a couple of apartment blocks behind, where the chorus singers, via their TV sets in the small apartments, can watch the actions of the main figures.
A smaller section of the chorus is briefly allowed to take part in the chain dance on the stage floor in the third act; but it is only in the last act that the chorus occupies the stage floor in earnest as the central actor. And here Pountney has formed the events in a way that neither Carl Nielsen nor Einar Christiansen had anticipated.
At critical points the predictions of the prophet Samuel have their part in the action. Pountney does not see him as harmless, but as a religious fundamentalist who wants to rule the people. And in this production Samuel evidently does not die after the anointment of David as King of Israel in the third act of the opera. He is even present in the fourth act, in which he has been permitted to take over the captain Abner’s last line (“In thee now is Israel’s hope”).
Carl Nielsen has the very last scene of acclamation culminate in a key that is radiantly clear and hymn-like, C major. Pountney chooses to couple this C major celebration of David as the new King with a scenically highly effective point: at the absolutely final moment the prophet appears again as the mute but utterly dominant centre.
Apparently, religion always wins!
The ruler and the people
Director David Pountney on key elements in his production, interviewed by Marie Theilmann
The stage represents two arenas. There is the royal room in the palace, where the political debates and the psychological encounters take place: the personal world of the king, Saul, and his very instable mental state. He is a variant on King Lear: A ruler who is tormented by self-doubt and subject to violent temperamental changes. As a background to this space, we created blocks of flats – familiar sights from all Middle Eastern conflict zones, which is where the people live and receive their news of what’s going on, very often by media as we would today. So we see everybody reacting to the news of the latest catastrophe or war or invasion, which is being brought to them on television screens. The decisions made in the foreground by this very unstable character, Saul, are affecting the whole nation.
We have tried to tread a delicate line so that it’s not entirely clear whether the characters in this story are Arabs or Israelis. They are people from that region who, as we know, share massive elements of culture, habit, and belief, but are, nonetheless, in semi-permanent conflict. We deliberately try to play the production so that you could read this as being either the one side or the other. They are both the sons of Abraham after all. They’re all Semitic peoples. So for us this is not a triumphalist piece about ultimate Israeli victory, as you might read from the Bible. It’s a more nuanced view of the historical situation as we see it now, and the tragedy, absurdity and futility of all armed conflict, especially in the name of religion.
The character of Samuel
For me Samuel is a fanatic, a religious fundamentalist who plays a game of power with Saul. At the very beginning he deliberately arrives late, which is a very old tactic for establishing power: Make everyone else run around fretting and then calmly walk in and take control. He is absolutely ruthless about establishing his religious authority, a religious authority that is superior to the lay authority, and he plays on Saul’s instabilities and temperament and provokes and manipulates him. So he’s a very dangerous figure – not unknown to us in our contemporary world.
The power of music
The person who comes nearest to the concept of a deity is the character of David. David’s power is actually music, and I think that the power of music comes about as close to the concept of deity as I personally can believe in. David represents something poetic and naïve, and un-manipulative. He thereby also possesses enormous power, but he doesn’t initially attempt to use it in a cynical, political way as Samuel does, but by the end of the piece we see that under the strain of social and national collapse, even the power of music is corrupted.
by Marie Theilmann
King Saul and his people are waiting for the arrival of the prophet Samuel, who is to officiate the ritual offering, which will protect the Israelites in their war against the Philistines. Impatient to get started, and despite the warnings of his son, Jonathan, Saul takes it upon himself to perform the ceremony. It is, however, soon interrupted by the arrival of Samuel, who is furious at Saul for not waiting for him. Samuel declares that in daring to begin the ceremony himself, Saul has sinned against Yahweh and will in return lose his kingdom and his title. As he is left to himself, Saul expresses his deep hatred towards God for punishing him in this way. In order to calm his father down, Jonathan brings his friend David, who is known and loved for his singing and music, to the court. Saul is immediately taken with David and asks him to stay at the court, to which David happily agrees. Shortly after, David is left alone with Saul’s daughter, Michal, and soon the two fall in love with each other.
Abner, the captain of Saul’s army, brings Saul the message that the Israelites are finding themselves powerless against the Philistines’ giant warrior Goliath. Now Goliath has challenged the Israelites to send a warrior to fight him one on one. The outcome of the duel will decide the outcome of the war. To show his gratitude towards Saul, David immediately offers to take up the fight, but as there is no suit of armour that will fit him, he goes into battle armed only with his sling. Mikal is desperately worried about David, but Jonathan soon brings home the good news that David has defeated the giant. When Saul and David return a short while later they are surrounded by the people who are cheering for David. Saul, however, soon becomes jealous of the attention given to David. He accuses David of wanting to steal the crown, and in his anger he takes back his offer to let David marry Michal and chases David away from the court.
The Israelite army have camped in the desert. Michal is worried about David, and Jonathan tries to calm her. David is very nearby, and in order to prove that he does not wish Saul any harm, he sneaks into the King’s tent at night and steals his spear. He takes the spear out into the camp and loudly chastises the King’s guard for not guarding their king properly. In seeing David’s doing, Saul realizes that he has nothing to fear from David, but the peace between the two men is short-lived. The old prophet Samuel is carried to the camp. He is on his deathbed and has come to perform one final ceremony for his God – to anoint David as the king of Israel. As soon as this is done, Samuel dies, leaving an infuriated Saul to order the arrest of David and Michal. There is, however, no soldier who will lay a hand on the anointed king, and David and Michal are free to leave the camp together.
Desperate for the guidance of his old councilor, Saul is prevailing on the Witch of Endor to raise Samuel’s spirit from the dead, so that Saul may seek his advice. There is, however, no peace in the words of Samuel’s spirit, as it tells Saul that he and his family will die before the day is over, and that David will inherit his people and his title. In the ongoing battles, the Israelites are suffering hard. Jonathan has been mortally wounded, and in his final hour he seeks comfort in knowing that David will lead the Israelites to a better future. With his last remaining strength Jonathan asks Abner to bring his respects to the new king. When Saul finds his son on the brink of death, he is mortified that he too did not find death in the battle. He asks Abner to kill him, too, but Abner refuses to kill his king, leaving Saul to kill himself. A little while later David and Michal arrive, surrounded by the people. They all mourn the dead. Soon, however, the mourning of the people turns into rejoicing over David, their new king.