NIELSEN Saul and David
No chauvinism here on the staging side. A British team of David Pountney and Robert Innes Hopkins contribute to the Nielsen’s home theatre a taut, economical updated 150th-anniversary production reminiscent of the style of the 1980s Norwest/Holst-sponsored rare operas at ENO. A modern Middle East is presented (mostly a large open acting area surrounded by high-rise tenement blocks) with costumes taking care to blur the line between Israeli and Arab – although, rather as in Greek tragedy, the Philistines, including their famous Goliath, do not actually appear onstage in Nielsen and Einar Christensen’s opera.
The production’s use of guns and projected film of bombardment does not overdo references to modern military images. The world around main action is carefully gauged. There is an uncanny realism in the TV screens present in each apartment of the tenement block which allow the chorus of people to keep in some kind of touch with the dangerous decisions of their leaders about their lives. And an almost parodistic element – or comic relief – is provided by the danced United Nations which Rebekkah Lund choreographs to the introductory music to Acts 2 and 4.
Pountney concentrates on the dangers of power which obviously fascinated the opera’s creators in the newly psychologically aware 1900s – one reason why this opera is not some 19th-century Romantic dinosaur recreation (or indeed an oratorio in disguise). Saul – a riveting performance from Johan Reuter in both voice and acted intensity – is not a bad man but he cannot bring himself to let go of the attention which comes with power and has to take his own life to avoid his prophet (or founding father) Samuel’s final dismissal of him. David, a folksy shepherd from a very other rustic world, is beautifully caught by Niels Jørgen Riis – although maybe his being pushed out of the way at the final curtain by a Samuel who has not died in Act 2 breaks the production’s predominant rule of subtle understatement. Riis’s voice copes well with the lyric outpouring of David’s Act 1 consoling of Saul and the contrasting passion of his duet with the rather mature Mikal of Ann Petersen, who nonetheless manages the youth and tessitura of her character convincingly.
Elsewhere Pountney’s direction and the conducting of Michael Schønwandt help make much of characters who might easily remain sinecures – Morten Staugaard’s Samuel (through fierce characterisation), Michael Kristensen’s Jonathan (through intense concentration on the fates of Saul and David) and Susanne Resmark’s chain-smoking Witch of Endor (mediating from a gypsy caravan and, unforgettably, riding off on her bicycle when Samuel’s voice gives Saul the thumbs-down). Orchestra and conductor unroll their home composer’s score with richness and dexterity. That and the feel of a home company at work add up to a result just that bit more ethnic-sounding than Chandos’s (very adequate) Neeme Järvi recording (3/91). The filming seems most sympathetic to the production’s needs. Hugely recommended – a far more powerful vote for this opera than the cartoon-like version you may access online.