David Pountney directs Nielsen’s Saul and David
COMPOSERS: Carl Nielsen
ALBUM TITLE: Carl Nielsen
WORKS: Saul & David
PERFORMER: Johan Reuter, Niels Jørgen Riis, Michael Kristensen, Susanne Resmark, Ann Petersen, Morten Staugaard; Royal Danish Opera Chorus; Royal Danish Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt; dir. David Pountney (Copenhagen, 2015)
CATALOGUE NO: Dacapo 2.110412
Rich in characteristically melodious and involving music, Nielsen’s first opera has never yet been as popular as his effervescent comedy Maskarade. This is the first commercial video of Saul and David, and it’s pretty good. Michael Schønwandt’s expansive conducting conveys its epic scale and lyrical sweep more naturally than his recent CD of Maskarade. David Pountney, who made a sorry hash of Maskarade at Bregenz, handles Einar Christiansen’s potentially stiff tragedy much more tellingly. True, he seizes on obvious parallels with today’s Middle East and its barmier dictators, in particular Gaddafi, but his updating seldom clashes violently with the original, except in religious elements; the prophet Samuel becomes a venomous fanatic, symbolically resurrected, and the Witch of Endor a blowsily bogus medium straight out of Menotti. Morten Staugaard and Susanne Resmark sing them with conviction, but deprived of the stature their music suggests.
Saul’s complex character is also somewhat narrowed, stressing his savage instability and underplaying his nobler, more tragic aspects. What survives is well brought out by Johan Reuter, miscast in Maskarade but excellent here. His sturdy Wagnerian bass-baritone is less richly resonant than CD rivals Aage Haugland and Boris Christoff, but his stage presence, arrogant yet vulnerable, is compelling. Niels Jørgen Riis sings and portrays David more ardently than most, despite a rather alarming grin. As Saul’s daughter Michal, Ann Petersen sings well but looks and sounds slightly mature. Michael Kristensen makes a stronger than usual impression as the put-upon Jonathan. With a fine supporting cast and despite dull sets and inane choreography, this is a strong performance which works well on screen.
Michael Scott Rohan