Carl Nielsen’s Saul and David in Copenhagen

I have been waiting thirty years for a performance of Carl Nielsen’s Saul and David. My only previous experience of the work had been an inauthentic recording in English with Boris Christoff, Elizabeth Söderström and Alexander Young which did not do it justice. The revival at Copenhagen’s new opera house, to celebrate the 150thanniversary of the composer’s birth, revealed that it is a neglected masterpiece. It is tight dramatically, emotionally gripping, while the music has all the might of Nielsen at his best: lyrical, stirring, innovative yet tonal. There cannot be a better interpreter for it around today than Michael Schønwandt. He captured the energy and tension of the piece – sometimes by pushing the singers more than they might have liked – but also the pathos, as the world of Saul disintegrates around him. Johan Reuter’s assumption of that role was at the centre of the remarkable performance. Bringing his Wagnerian experience to bear, the dilemmas of fate and irresolution were much to the fore and his rich bass baritone had a Wotan-like intensity. Apart from the David, who convinced neither visually nor dramatically, the rest of the cast were good, if not at the same level.

What then of the production by our own David Pountney? The powerful themes of the work – the rewards and penalties of adhering, or not, to the dictates of unremitting tradition and culture and the need for reconciliation – has such obvious resonance for what is going on in the Middle East that the temptation to translate it to that contemporary setting must have been irresistible. Yet it did not wholly succeed. Having the chorus, as the populace, watching political events on television sets in tenements at the rear of the stage was at best distracting; and having a United Nations peace making team dancing the interludes was frankly ridiculous. More fundamentally, the poetic biblical language of the text did not lie comfortably in this setting. Although I therefore would have preferred a more abstract staging, I have to admit that the ending partially won me over: Saul is lost and David triumphs in a desolate landscape after a devastating bombing expedition. This was not victory for obedience to divine will, but merely an episode in an unending cycle of hostility. Yes, Saul and David communicates to us today. Why the major opera companies of the world continue to ignore it remains a mystery.