Saul og David

Carl Nielsen’s operas don’t get performed much outside his native Denmark so it’s no surprise that the only video recording of his 1902 opera Saul og David was recorded in Copenhagen.  The libretto is a fairly straightforward telling of the familiar story of Saul, David, Goliath, Samuel and so on.  The music is very much of its time.  It’s bold and lyrical; perhaps reminiscent of Strauss in a conventional mood or, perhaps, Elgar.  There are some really good choruses and David and Michal get a gorgeous duet in Act 3.

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David Pountney directed.  He gives the piece a contemporary middle eastern, though not specifically Israeli, setting.  His chief idea is of the danger of a charismatic religious figure, Samuel, usurping secular authority.  It’s not a bad idea but the actual execution seems to telescope back into the straightforward narrative which, however, is perfectly competently directed.  I did like the idea of having the chorus of Israelites mainly observing the action (they are split among a number of rooms with TV sets while the main action takes place centre stage) for the first three acts and only really becoming “agents” as the power structures of the state collapse.  The modern setting creates a few anomalies.  David’s scoped sniper rifle in Act 3 rather made me wonder why he used a sling in the duel with Goliath!  Still, it works pretty well without exactly blowing one away.  There a re a few goofy bits too.  The Act 1/2 entracte is given a choreographed meeting of what appears to be the UN Security Council reimagined by the Pythons while videos of refugee camps play on a giant screen.  Very odd.

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At the heart of the performance is Johan Reuter as Saul.  He is just fantastic.  He sings with power and passion and is a terrific actor.  This may be one of his best roles.  The supporting cast is decent but not on the same level.Niels Jørgen Riis is a lyrical Davis though why he sports a perpetual goofy grin puzzled me a bit.  Ann Petersen’s Michal was a little strident at times but well characterized.  Michael Kristensen’s Jonathan puzzled me a bit.  Either he was somewhat overparted or there’s something odd about the theatre acoustic or the sound quality on the recording but he kept, vocally, disappearing into the background.  There’s a neat cameo from Suzanne Resmark as a rather nightmarish Witch of Endor.  It’s hard to imagine this music getting better treatment from chorus, orchestra and conductor than it gets here.  Michael Schønwandt is the preeminent Nielsen specialist and with his own Royal Danish Orchestra one can see why he is held in such high regard.

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Video direction is by Peter Borgwardt.  It’s a bit frenetic.  He uses a lot of cuts, some odd angles and some extreme close ups.  It’s watchable but he needs to take some tranquillizers next time.  Picture quality is just about good enough.  It has the usual DVD problems in dark scenes; Samuel is barely visible in the Witch of Endor scene.  The sound is more problematic.  It’s just not consistent and it seems at times that the voices are balanced way too far back.  It’s not just a problem with the DTS surround sound either I checked the Dolby 5.1 and the stereo tracks and they have the same issue.  This may be an artefact of the theatre as I have heard of similar issues with other Copenhagen recordings. It doesn’t wreck the disk but it’s annoying.  There are no extras on the disk but the booklet contains a synopsis and some decent historical and explanatory material.  Subtitle options are English and Danish.

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So, some good performances in a serviceable production of an interesting opera.  It’s a pity the technical aspects of the recording weren’t handled better and Blu-ray would have been nice but this is the only recording of Saul og David and quite likely to remain that way.

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