Festival brings 'King David' to life

  • Jul 15, 2007
By James Bash For The Register-Guard Published: Sunday, July 15, 2007 The new production of Arthur Honegger's "King David" received a remarkably dynamic and musically fulfilling realization at the Oregon Bach Festival on Thursday evening. This performance marked a unique collaboration between actors of the Willamette Repertory Theatre, members of the Festival Orchestra, soloists and the Festival Choir, who retold the dramatic Old Testament story of the shepherd boy who defeated Goliath and became a celebrated king of ancient Israel. It was like watching opera, only much more text seemed to be spoken rather than sung. Honegger composed the music for "King David" in 1921 to accompany a play originally written by René Morax. Then in 1923, Honegger expanded the score and synthesized the parts for 30 actors into text that was delivered by a narrator. Calling his creation a "symphonic psalm," Honegger's concert version could be presented more easily than the original. The success of the new Oregon Bach Festival production rested squarely on Kirk Boyd, the director of Willamette Repertory Theatre, who rewrote Morax's original script for one narrator and six actors to depict at least 15 different characters. Boyd divided the story into two acts. The first act tells of the young David, his triumph over Goliath, the jealousy of King Saul at David's popularity, David's flight into the desert, and the Philistines victory over Saul and his forces. The second act describes David's triumph over Israel's enemies, his adultery, his misfortunes with his dysfunctional family, his proclamation of his son Solomon as his heir, and finally David's death. In the role of the narrator, Michael Kevin infused the landscape of the story with meaning and clarity and near-perfect diction. Young Harry Thornton was terrific as David, the shepherd boy. This kid could herd cats if asked. Tim True created a complex King David, who could grow in stature but at the same time succumb to personal flaws. Jennifer Taggart's Witch of Endor and bewitching Bathsheba were excellent. No one in the audience was napping when the scantily clad Bathsheba took the stage. Superb also were Frank Muhr in the dual roles of Samuel and Nathan; Richard Leebrick as Jess, Jonathan and Joag; and Dan Pegoda as Saul, Uriah and Solomon. The soloists sang very well. Soprano Beth Cram Porter and mezzo soprano Susan Druck presented strong, clear voices. Dann Coakwell's radiant tenor needed a little more volume to be heard above the orchestra. The orchestra consisted of a wind ensemble, a double bass, percussion and three keyboardists. All played outstandingly. Honegger painted a light canvas with his score, so there are many exposed parts that could be easily flubbed, but that was not the case here. The chorus maintained a marvelous blend throughout, and each word was pronounced clearly. Conductor Robin Engelen guided the performance with grace and agility. He chose tempos that helped to propel the story forward. For one of the numbers, Engelen worked a little magic. He started the chamber orchestra in one meter and then brought in the choir in another. It all worked fine and dandy, but it looked very odd. The staging of this production went well for the most part but did present some challenges. The conductor and orchestra were positioned front and center. The three soloists stood to the left side. Directly behind the orchestra was a raised platform stage where the action took place. Behind and above the stage sat the choir. But once in a while an actor would stand in front of the choir while they sang and would block the view of a few choristers. Silva Hall at the Hult Center was perhaps two-thirds full, but the audience was delighted by this inventive production, making it a sleeper hit of the festival. Music critic James Bash lives in Portland and writes for Willamette Week, The Columbian, The Register-Guard and other publications.