Dallas — The epic story of King Saul would appear to make an unlikely subject for a new opera, requiring very large forces, battle scenes and biblical-scaled sets in an era of reduced budgets. On the other hand, the subject is very operatic, so it is easy to see how it would intrigue composers. Handel wrote one, a dramatic cantata; as did Carl Nielsen, with a full-blown four-act opera. So did Dallas-based composer Simon Sargon, and selections from his opera Saul were heard in a concert version on Saturday evening at the Aaron Jewish Community Center.
The organizations behind the event were SMU Meadows School of the Arts, Temple Emanu-El, Temple Shalom, Puccini Society of Dallas, Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, Jewish Community Center of Dallas, Southwest Jewish Congress and the Wagner Society of Dallas.
Baritone Donnie Ray Albert took the role of Saul. His huge voice is always a wonder to behold. You could only wish that we could have heard more of Saul’s music. Stephen Morscheck, who is a real bass, played the severe prophet Samuel and also sang the role of the High Priest. David was portrayed by heldentenor Clifton Forbis, who makes a wonderful Tristan but was on the stentorian side for portraying the shepherd boy. He also sang the role of Samuel’s general.
Jonathan was listed as being portrayed by De’Shon Myers but an insert informed that Mark McCory had stepped in at the last minute. Arielle Collier was rather bland as the Witch of Endor; more a bored high school counselor that the fearsome necromancer. A quartet stood in for all of the choruses and adding Quintin Coleman and Courtney Stancil to the other singers helped to fill it out.
Sargon was a charming and informative guide as he took us through the opera, filling in what was going on and what happened between the selections. He announced that he would be the orchestra, but at the piano. What he played didn’t sound much like a piano reduction of an orchestral score. It sounded like a piano version that came either before or after the actual orchestration. There were a lot of arpeggios, which do not work as well in an orchestration. There were also numbers of effects, such as tinkling note at the top of the piano, which would be difficult to orchestrate and get the same result (maybe a celesta). Nevertheless, he played it beautifully.
Sargon said that he has been working on Saul for many years. Other workshop performances convinced him that the score needed revisions and it is this newly completed version that was used for this concert. Usually, a composer’s style matures over the years, even those blessed with a distinctive voice early on. This is one of the problems composers face in revising an earlier work. How do you marry your musical style of 20 years ago with what you are doing now? It would make for a fascinating lecture. Maybe the always-interesting Sargon would do that sometime.
His musical language is basically pure neo-romantic tonality. The biggest influence is that of Jewish music—both popular and liturgical. On a rare occasion, he flirts with bitonality and the judicious use of dissonance, mostly with added seconds. Open intervals abound. Chromatics are mostly in scale form. Rhythmically, a passage in triple meter points out that most of the opera is in duple time with little use of cross rhythms or mixed meter. Most everything was solidly on the beat and in the same tempo, which probably doesn’t hold true for the entire score. None of this is meant as a criticism. Composers today are free to write in any style they choose, but Sargon’s music feels more like he is writing in a default position rather than a conscious decision to return to his roots.
Some of his music is gorgeous and deserves to have a life of its own, separate from the fate of Saul. The setting of the 23rd Psalm is a masterpiece and, in Forbis’ hands, it soared to its conclusion on Saturday. Saul’s big aria is another natural excerpt and, although it feels slow, Albert’s thundering voice gave it a fine performance.
Sargon’s opera is a historical telling of the events of Saul’s short reign as the first King of Israel. While this narrative makes for fine operatic fodder, an exploration of some of the issues the story raises would have helped avoid the timeline feeling of his opera.
While I am certainly not a religious scholar, there are two issues in the story that caught my attention.
One is that the King of Israel consulted a witch to talk to Samuel, who was long dead. The other is at the core of the matter—a commandment from God to Saul, delivered through Samuel, that he is, in Sargon’s words, to commit genocide (a loaded word if ever there was).
The first order of business for the new King is to wipe out the nation of Amalek, to kill everything that breathes, even babies and cows. The entire nation is dedicated to wiping the Jews off the face of the earth.
“I [God] shall surely erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens...God maintains a war against Amalek from generation to generation." (Exodus 17:14-16)
It is Saul’s refusal to kill them all that leads to his downfall. Saul can’t bring himself to carry out this order completely. He leaves some alive who, as you can assume, go on to spread anti-Semitism throughout the earth. Here is an interesting article on this subject.
These issues are presented as things that happen and that influenced the plot. Maybe the full opera takes some time to reflect on their meaning to future generations.