Sunday, 7 June 2015

Not a butter cookie - Carl Nielsen Saul og David, Royal Danish Opera

Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen, celebrates the 150th anniversary of Denmark's most famous composer, Carl Nielsen, with a new production of Saul og David.  Watch a video trailer and read more HERE.  Listen to the audio-only broadcast on BBC Radio 3 HERE. Definitely worth listening to, because it's superlative. Everyone's inspired, knowing the significance of the occasion. Nielsen himself played in the orchestra in this very house, which may also have a bearing.

Nielsen's Maskarade may be better known but this performance makes a powerful case for  Saul og David.  Michael Schønwandt conducts.  He's conducted a lot of Nielsen's orchestral work, hence the authoritative confidence he brings.  While Maskarade is light hearted (though deeper than one assumes), Saul og David seems to come straight from the hard rockface of personal conviction.  Considering that Nielsen was a man of the theatre, it's surprising that Saul og David makes no compromises for popular taste. It's a bitter tale, though highly dramatic. King Saul is cursed and young David triumphs. The music is spartan, so singular that it's a jolt to realize it's more or less contemporary with Madama Butterfly, Kashchey the Immortal and Salome. That, though, is part of its charm, for Nielsen was a rugged individualist, with what has been described as a "homespun" philosophy of music. Although he wasn't specially religious he would have been familiar with the aesthetics of  Lutheran piety, where the Bible provided moral and spiritual compass. There aren't many Scandinavian operas, though there  have always been many Scandinavian singers.

Schønwandt gets the right balance between rough-hewn strength and emotional finesse, drawing from Johann Reuter perhaps the finest performance in his career. Reuter's Saul is finely nuanced and sensitively modulated, bringing out the complexities of Saul's personality, Niels Jørgen Riis sings David, his clear, bright tenor suggesting David's youth and  beauty. But the warmth of Riis's expression makes the listener feel that David's magnanimity is genuinely sincere. Reuter and Riis have been working together for years, so the dynamic between them feels effortless.  Recently I was watching Nielsen's Maskarade , directed by Kasper Holten for Det Kongelige Teater,  in which Reuter sings Henrik to Riis's Leander.  Because they're so good together, the comedy could flow naturally and unforced, which matters in an opera like Maskarade which predicates on lightness of touch and gentle good humour.  Holten's production stressed the homespun intimacy of the piece, which I think suits its understated Mozartean elegance nicely, without being too arch.  This new production of Saul og David was directed by David Pountney, who directed Nielsen's Maskarade for the Royal Opera House in 2005. Saul og David can bear much more forcefully dramatic treatment than Maskarade, so perhaps Pountney's style will work well.

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