David against Goliath – a match inside and outside the basilica in Svatý Kopeček

15 August 2021, 9:00
David against Goliath – a match inside and outside the basilica in Svatý Kopeček

One of the biggest attractions of this year's Olomouc Baroque Festival was the performance of the oratorio David by the Austrian composer Karl Ditters. It was the perfect opportunity to do so, after all – this year the work celebrates 250 years since its creation. Ditters composed the oratorio to a text by Ignazio Pinto in 1771 and in the same year it had its premiere at the castle of Bishop Philipp Gotthard Schaffgotsch of Wrocław on the Jánský Vrch (John´s Hill) near Javorník. In the musical production of violinist and artistic director of Volantes Orchestra Veronika Manová and conductor Ema Mikešová the oratorio was first performed in concert in Brno at the Church of St. Johns (4 August), then on 7 August in Podzámecká zahrada – a garden of the Archbishop’s Chateau in Kroměříž, and, finally, on 12–14 August in the Ambit and Basilica of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary on the Svatý Kopeček (Holy Hill) near Olomouc. The event of 12 August was the performance I visited. In addition to Volantes Orchestra, there were members of other ensembles – Arte dei Suonatori (PL), Il Cuore Barocco (SK), Musica Aeterna (HU) and Societas Incognitorum (CZ). In this aspect, this is another event from the series of concerts organised under the auspices of the festival which bring together musical ensembles from the Visegrad Four. However, there are also performers from other countries – Slovenia, Northern Macedonia and Great Britain. The solo roles were performed by: Doubravka Součková (David), Aco Bišćević (Saul, King of Israel), Helena Hozová (Jonathan, son of Saul), Jiří Miroslav Procházka (Abner, warlord) and Aneta Petrasová (Eliab, David’s brother). The concert was directed by Rocc; the choreography was designed by Sanja Nešković Peršin and costumes were rendered by Borjan Litovski.

Ditters’ oratorio tells the story of the young shepherd and future king David and his battle with the giant Goliath, David's friend Jonathan, the king's son, and the royal father Saul himself. The Old Testament narrative of unbreakable faith and courage in the face of a seemingly invincible adversary is eternally relevant in its message and resonates especially strongly in times of adversity or oppression. (After all, Voskovec and Werich also used the story of the colossal disparity of forces to highlight the dangerous – and ultimately unfortunate – political situation of the 1930s.) But as Thursday night proved, even without the looming threat of war, David's battle with the giant Goliath can be a thrilling experience.

The first half of the performance took place right in the basilica – the singers were on a raised stage above the orchestra, in front of which a prepared choreography was performed by the dancers: Sanja Nešković Peršin (Faith/Fides), Luka Bokšan (Hope/Spes), Ivana Percan Kodarin (Love/Caritas), led by Andrea Miltner rendering the character of David the Inspiring. So let us take it one by one: The vocal performances were at an excellent level – whether we focus on the expressively varied Saul as interpreted by Aco Bišćević, who, although in his aria was not always exactly with the orchestra in the dynamic waves, managed to perfectly handle a wide range of emotions. Mention must be made of the excellent Jonathan, played by Helena Hozová, whose soft and sweet soprano without too much embellishment was perfectly suited to the Prince's mournful aria in the second half, in which he says that he supports David in his decision to fight the giant, because “sacrifice for the country and his people is more important than love for his own family”, yet he is visibly shaken by the whole situation. Jiří Miroslav Procházka also gave a quality performance as the warlord Abner, especially in the second half he was given more space to show his interpretive abilities, both in terms of tonal range and colour palette. The minor, but no less well staged role of David's brother Eliab was played with honour by alto singer Aneta Petrasová and her strong points also came in the second half. The singing throne, however, rightfully belonged to Doubravka Součková, who portrayed David – her emotionally and dynamically strong delivery was exactly what the character of the young shepherd who decides to face almost certain death needed. Although at first I thought that Součková's voice would be more suited to the portrayal of Jonathan and Hozová's fragile speech to the interpretation of David, it was Doubravka Součková's hardy heroism that made her the best choice for the title role. The chorus was also very good, and although it did not enter with the orchestra exactly at the end of the work, at other times it was excellent dynamically and in terms of intonation. However, the overall impression was significantly spoiled by the lack of subtitles. Here and there, text appeared on the screen, describing what was generally happening in the story, but it was not a detailed description at all. In a situation where King Saul alternates, during one aria – and most brilliantly! – a whole line of emotions and affects and the listener has no chance to understand why this is so, it is a real shame. The same is true throughout the final movement, where arias by Abner and David appear. Moreover, David's aria ends relatively "tamely" and without subtitles the listener has no chance to understand why this is so. It is different on a CD, where one does not expect to understand something without the booklet, but watching the singers trying vehemently to convey the lyrical message as they trip due to the lack of subtitles was unexpectedly sobering. Moreover, perhaps the text could at least partially explain the directorial concept and choreography – in the first half, the dancers walked around a "box" on which Andrea Miltner gestured. Some of the creations made sense immediately – for example, the simulated shooting with a slingshot, while others made any concrete interpretation impossible due to their abstraction. The combination of the highly symbolic choreography with the emotional strain of singing, which was impossible to understand without subtitles, led to unprecedented frustration. However, it is important to point out that her performance was fantastic. The expressiveness she put into even the smallest gesture or expression was breath-taking. Her every movement seemed to personify an inner struggle and tension. Then when all came out into the courtyard in the second half, I believed there would be a big disentanglement, but instead I thought: “Why is the lady on the projection screen screaming so dramatically just as Abner’s character is singing his aria? Is there a connection?” I did not get an explanation.

The last mention belongs to the orchestra, which must have made conductor Ema Mikešková happy. Except for a few small things which occurred mostly in the second part, when the musicians and their instruments were still affected by the cold and humidity, the players were well matched, strong in terms of intonation and rhythm, and dynamically varied.

The oratorio David received an excellent production with great singing performances and unconventional staging. My lamenting over the absence of text may seem excessive and even petty. I believe, however, that since the singers have already paid such attention to the libretto, the listener should also be able to get a glimpse into the thoughts and emotions of the individual characters. (At least the ending deserves it!) However, apart from this, it was an accomplished evening through and through, and it is good that more and more attention is being paid to the work of composer Karl Ditters, for it certainly deserves it.

Doubravka Součková – David
Aco Aleksander Bišćević (SLV) – Saul, King of Israel
Helena Hozová – Jonathan, son of Saul
Jiří Miroslav Procházka – Abner, warlord

Aneta Petrasová – Eliab, David's brother

Andrea Miltner – David the Inspiring

Faith/Fides: Sanja Nešković Peršin (SVN) Hope/Spes: Luka Bokšan (SVN) Love/Caritas: Ivana Percan Kodarin (SVN)

Ema Mikešková – conductor
Volantes Orchestra (CZ)
Arte dei Suonatori (PL)
Il Cuore barocco (SK)
Musica Aeterna (HU)
Musa / Muza (NMK)

Societas Incognitorum (CZ)

Veronika Manová – musical production
Rocc – direction and scenography
Sanja Nešković Peršin – choreography
Borjan Litovski – costumes
Tomáš Hrůza – projection
Ondřej Zunt – lighting
Studio Volantes – production

Veronika Manová – preparation of sheet music

  1. August 2021

Photograph: Daniel Berka

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