Michael Steinberg's programme note for last night's performance of Honegger's Le Roi David (or King David for those whose French is even more limited than mine) informs us that after several other composers had turned down the commission due to the tight deadlines the young, and not yet on the map, Honegger was less fussy. However, the constraint does show in the quality of the work: this is not the greatest oratorio ever written. However, it is not the worst either. Steinberg then goes on to tell us that it wouldn't be helpful to write a synopsis. Having sat through it I disagree, and it would seem no harder to write one than for many an opera. Wikipedia manages a brief, if not very comprehensive one.
Fresh from their triumph at last year's festival with celebration of Poulenc, Deneve is back with Royal Scottish National Orchestra who are on fine form, especially their brass (if perhaps not quite so brilliant as they were for Mahagonny). Then again, this is a less interesting score. Sometimes the music can be a little trite, especially in one or two of the marches, and rather reminiscent of film music, which given the structure of the original performance is not surprising.
However, there were problems from the outset. The narrator was amplified, continuing the worrying trend started with Mahagonny, to rework an old phrase: to amplify once might be considered unfortunate, twice begins to look like carelessness. It was particularly bad when Andrzej Seweryn raised his voice to very little effect. Sylvia Berge was also amplified as the Witch of Endor as she summoned the spirit of Samuel, but here is the kind of rare exception when it can heighten the drama without detracting for the music.
Elsewhere there were more stand-ins. Soprano Geraldine McGreevy had the lions share of the singing to do, and while she wasn't bad, I didn't care for her voice which was rather fluttery for my tastes. Seamus Herron was another last minute addition taking over the boy soprano role of the young David. This was fine, and one felt sorry for him as he had then to sit stock still for the remaining sixty minutes of the piece at the front of the stage.
The vocal highlight was mezzo Karen Cargill, whom I have previously enjoyed singing Das Lied von der Erde for Donald Runnicles. Sadly she had much to little to do.
And what of the work itself? The biblical story may not be to all tastes due to its old testament blood and thunder, likewise the fact that a little time in the desert seems to make up for a lot of sinning. That said, there are some fine moments and it is well worth hearing, though quite how often is more questionable. Nevertheless it was the kind of experience that a festival is for.
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