Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A fascinating production of a passionate masterpiece

The Nielsen Year in 2015 gave us a chance to see the great Danish composer in the round. The focus was naturally on the symphonies and concertos, which surely place Nielsen among the top 20th century composers. But new productions of his comic masterpiece Maskarade and his tragic Saul and David give us a chance to see experience Nielsen's greatness as an operatic composer as well.

Saul and David is in the sadly small subset of operas one can call dramatically coherent. Credit for this goes to the source material and the librettist Einar Christiansen, but equally to Carl Nielsen, whose music plays a major role in moving the story along, building its climaxes and giving us room to breath and reflect when the action flags. Robert Layton says Saul and David is "...borne along effortlessly on the essentially symphonic current of Nielsen's musical thought." Most importantly, Nielsen's music opens a window into the tortured soul of the protagonist, King Saul. The hero of this new DVD from Dacapo is conductor Michael Schonwandt, whose finger is always on the dramatic pulse of the work. He ensures that his players and singers (including the very important chorus) keep the musical pulse in sync with the drama.

I would most definitely call the production, by the English team of David Pountney (stage direction) and Robert Innes Hopkins (set and costume design), fascinating, but it's not perfect. To call it half-baked is an exaggeration. Though it maybe could have used a bit more time at 350 degrees/gas mark 3, there are lots of tasty bits here. In an update that pushes forward to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict there are plenty of opportunities for striking scenes and situations, especially since there is constant ambiguity about who's who in terms of Israelites and Philistines. If Nielsen's music reflects Saul's inner turmoil, the flickering TV sets in the bombed-out concrete high-rise apartments surrounding the stage that house the chorus show the effect the King's actions have on the outside world. His inner troubles and power struggle with Samuel/God have a terrible impact in the Real World, and the Media is there reporting it all. The mixed chorus makes more sense singing about martial affairs when women and men are dressed in battle-gear, with berets and AK-47s. Pountney's depiction of the prophet Samuel as a religious fundamentalist is a master-stroke, though I won't spoil the full extent and dramatic reveal, of this crucial change.

On the other hand, I found some design and direction decisions puzzling. The light show at the beginning of Act 4 seems superfluous to the great depiction of battle provided by Nielsen in his Prelude. The costumes and props were hit and miss. The bull sacrificed in Act 1 lacked something (glamour? maybe not glamour, but something), though the call-back of the hook in Act 4 is devastating. However, I loved everything about the Witch of Endor scene, including the bicycle. The ballet set-pieces (choreographed by Rebekka Lund) were lovely diversions, and helped David Pountney sell his concept, though maybe not in a completely organic way.

In terms of sound, this version of the opera is a definite advance over the Jascha Horenstein 1972 recording from 1972. It's a closer contest between the new recording and the Chandos one from 1990, conducted by Neeme Jarvi, which has great sound. Of course, the DTS 5.1 audio on the DVD is an advance, so I'm going to give the new disc top honours in this regard. As to the relative musical merits of the three recordings, it's instructive to note all three come from Danish orchestras. This is a demonstration of the odd disregard for the opera outside of Denmark. Surely this work would be a big hit in New York or London or Toronto, especially with the juicy acting/singing role of Saul. The available recordings have all been lucky with that part: Horenstein had Boris Christoff in his prime, Jarvi's Saul is the marvellous Aage Haugland, and here baritone Johan Reuter is really outstanding. The rest of the cast is very good as well, uniformly good as actors, and the chorus is excellent. Pountney makes good use of the chorus as actors, which is something that seems to happen routinely in today's best productions. Gone are the days, I guess, of standing in line up-stage, singing hard and looking awkward in a toga. In spite of Christoff in the Horenstein version, though, and fine singing and playing in the Jarvi version, I'm most impressed with Schonwandt's vision and follow-through in this excellent recording.

The trailer for the DVD gives you a good idea of the range of this piece, and the various aspects of this production. Dacapo was one of the big stars of the Nielsen Year; bravo for this!

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