A Goliath show

  • Jul 5, 2007
By Bob Keefer The Register-Guard Published: Thursday, July 5, 2007 King David cut a giant figure through the Old Testament. So perhaps it's no surprise the Oregon Bach Festival and Willamette Repertory Theatre are thinking big - very big - when they bring a musical telling of David's story to the Hult Center stage next week. "We are going to be doing it Vegas style,'' laughed costume and scenic designer Michael Olich as he explained his concept to actors at Willamette Rep one recent evening. "Everything is flashy." The show is going to be a first-ever collaboration between the Bach festival and Willamette Rep, which are getting together to produce a staged version of composer Arthur Honegger's oratorio King David. To do so they're reaching back to the original 1921 performance of Honegger's work, which he composed as incidental music to Rene Morax's Biblical epic stage play, "Le Roi David," in 1921. Morax had approached Igor Stravinsky to write the music for the play. Stravinsky turned him down but referred him to Honegger, who was then 29 years old. In less than four months, Honegger composed all the music for Morax's play, which was, at that point, a sprawling epic that ran 6 1/2 hours and featured a cast of dozens. Honegger later recast the work as an oratorio - a musical story told without staging - to be performed by orchestra, chorus, soloists and a narrator. Enter the Bach Festival and Willamette Rep. Bach Festival executive director Royce Saltzman had heard the oratorio performed in Minneapolis and asked Willamette Rep artistic director Kirk Boyd if he thought he could stage the story in a production with festival musicians. Boyd sat down with a translation of Morax's script and the score to Honegger's oratorio and adapted a two-hour stage version in two acts for half a dozen actors. "What we have here is a hybrid," Boyd said. "We have dramatized these original scenes using Rene Morax's original play. And Honegger's music really was theater music, not concert music, so we're going back to what the composer originally intended." At an early reading at Willamette Rep, it was apparent that many of the cast members had cut Sunday school when the story of David was discussed. Boyd brought in a video of a televised "Biography" segment about the ancient figure to enlighten them. In case you skipped Sunday school, too, David was an ancient Hebrew king whose life was documented in the Old Testament, primarily in the first and second books of Samuel. He lived in about the 10th to 11th century BCE. While recorded details of his life are sketchy and have a mythological feel, there are historical references to him outside of the Bible, and he's generally thought to have been a real person. David has long been a towering figure in Western literature and art: think Michelangelo's colossal marble statue "David." The two big episodes of David's life that most people know - and that form the basis for King David - are his youthful slaying of Goliath, the giant, by hitting him in the forehead with a rock from his sling; and David's murder of Uriah, a captain in his army, in order to seduce Uriah's wife, the beautiful Bathsheba. All of this will be performed on stage at the Hult Center's Silva Concert Hall, a giant stage in a big hall. "It's big. It's really big," Boyd told his actors. "We get to use our big outdoor voices here." That bigness will also dictate the stage and costume design. Olich, a theater professor at Lewis and Clark College, took on the task of putting a chorus, an orchestra, soloists and a conductor on stage along with the actors and having it all make sense. Olich's design uses flashy, outsized costumes to give the actors more presence. The chorus will perform behind them, behind a black scrim, so that the singers appear while singing but disappear into darkness when not singing. All of the acting will take place on three four-foot wide ramps that run the width of the stage in front of the scrim. They serve visually as hills. And Goliath - well, just remember he was a giant, so expect something really big. Leading the musical forces will be Robin Engelen, a 33-year-old conductor who works with Bach Festival artistic director Helmuth Rilling in Stuttgart, Germany. Engelen, who conducts a lot of opera at home, thinks that working with actors on stage is perfectly appropriate for this music. "King David is originally not meant to be a scenical performance," he said. "It's oratory... But this music is so dramatic it longs for staging." Honegger's King David is one of the most frequently performed church works in Germany, Engelen said - but not in anything like this form. "Which surprises me. Within the piece it's an oratorio. But you have a speaker who is really a part of this piece, and he is reciting a text which is half the performing time. So you already have this theatrical approach."