Notes and Editorial Reviews
I found this a remarkable experience. Flavio Testi (b. 1923) is Italian, born in Florence, and has written extensively for the stage with a seeming bias towards monumental subjects. Like another great opera based on a biblical subject, Testi has based Saül on a French play, in this case by André Gide (the librettist of Stravinsky’s Persephone). Although the play was written in 1898, it had to wait for publication and presumably performance until 1902. Even then, I am sure it was quite controversial since it makes quite explicit the homosexual attraction between Jonathan and David as well as implying that Saul has erotic feelings for the young harpist. The sheer decadence of Gide’s text is especially evident in the scenes of Saul
and the demons, played here by children. At one point, a demon comments that the perfect addition to the moment would be an anise ice! We are very far from Charpentier and Handel’s treatments of the story, and perhaps that explains the delay in the opera’s performance as well. The copyright date on the music is 1991, but what we hear is billed as the premiere, given in concert by Radio France, in 2003. It was certainly worth the wait.
The play has attracted the attentions of Honegger and Milhaud (incidental music written in 1922 and 1954 respectively) but this is the first operatic treatment. As edited, apparently quite severely, by the composer, the libretto focuses entirely on the madness of the later days of Saul, the first king of Israel. It opens in the middle of a howl from the king and the tension never lets up as Saul faces the agony of knowing his line will end with himself, that his successor will not be his much loved but disappointing son. Jonathan’s lack of interest in both the crown and battle is a continual topic—the Queen, in her only scene, talks of how she has resisted showing her love for her child in an effort to make him a warrior—and once David is introduced as the possible savior of Israel against the Philistines’ giant, Goliath, the attraction between Jonathan and David is instantaneous. The action is framed by the twin invasions of the Philistines, the second when, with David at their helm, both Saul and Jonathan are killed. In between are extraordinary scenes for the Queen, the Sorceress (aka the Witch of Endor), and the conjured-up ghost of Samuel.
Testi structured the work in three brief acts and 12 scenes. As can be seen from the headnote, the whole runs just over an hour and a half. As in the operas of Debussy, Poulenc, and Messiaen, the vocal line is mostly declamatory, with occasional hints of arioso at climactic points. The musical interest lies primarily in the colorful orchestra that supports and comments on the action at every turn. Testi’s idiom owes a good deal to Stravinsky, not unexpectedly, and I was frequently reminded of the Orff settings of Antigone, Oedipus, and Prometheus with their ritualistic concentration on the tragedies of the great. Of particular note are Testi’s use of both harp and piano in his orchestra as well as the sheer sumptuousness with which he clothes Gide’s words. Virtually my only complaint is the casting of the three demons with children, which may or may not have originated with the composer. As in the case of Ynoid in Pelleas, the use of adult sopranos would have made the supernatural decadence of the demons much more obvious and the adult voices would have stood up to the orchestra better.
The title role would seem to be made for José van Dam and it cannot be said that Vincent le Textier’s vibrato-ridden singing does true justice to the musical (as opposed to the dramatic) aspects of the role whenever he is forced to sing out. Jonathan and David are both tenors and exceptionally well differentiated here, with Fabrice Mantegna’s liquid tenor contrasting with the baritonal gruffness of Daniel Galvez-Vallejo’s David. Both women are mezzos. Annie Vavrille, as the Queen, especially recalls both the manner and the sound of Astrid Varnay’s extraordinary Jocasta in Orff’s Oedipus der Tyrann. The scene with the Sorceress and Samuel is both extremely well sung and very spooky. Oddly enough, Saul slaughters both the women at the end of their respective scenes—perhaps a quirk of Gide’s ambivalent relationship with women? With the exception of the children, everyone else sings very well. Massimo Zanetti is apparently an up-and-coming conductor in the operatic world, and he leads Myung-Whun Chung’s excellent orchestra with a sure hand. The sheer dramatic fire of this performance, given the relative unfamiliarity of an opera without a performance tradition as well as being done in concert, is extraordinary. The recording is excellent. The booklet comes with an informative essay, bios of all the participants, and the libretto in French and English. New operas on important subjects are not thick on the ground and the excellence of this one is an unexpected pleasure. Recommended with enthusiasm.
John Story, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Saül by Flavio Testi
Fabrice Mantegna (Tenor),
Hannah Schaer (Mezzo Soprano),
Annie Vavrille (Mezzo Soprano),
Daniel Galvez-Vallejo (Tenor),
Renaud Delaigues (Bass),
Richard Rittelmann (Baritone),
Thierry Félix (Baritone),
Vincent le Texier (Baritone)
ORTF Philharmonic Orchestra,
Maîtrise de Radio France
Period: 20th Century
Date of Recording: 10/25/2003
Venue: Live Olivier Messiaen Hall, Paris, France
Notes: Composition written: Italy (2002 - 2003).
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