The medium known as opera-oratorio has been fruitful for many contemporary composers and their recent creations. Successful, semi-staged examples such as Richard Einhorn’s The Origin (a 2008 multimedia biopic on Charles Darwin) and John Adams’s mythical folk story A Flowering Tree (2006) come to mind. 

If those compositions took explicitly non-sacred subjects and imbued them with enhanced spiritual meaning, then Norwegian composer Ståle Kleiberg’s contribution to the genre—the two-act David and Bathsheba, released by Lindberg Lyd AS on Pure Audio Blu-ray and CD in September 2012—attempts to take a titillating yet cautionary Old Testament story (Kind David plots to dispose of the general Uriah in order to claim Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, as his own, then suffers God’s judgment) and highlight the inherent plot points that suggest secular opera. 

In fulfilling the conventions of the oratorical tradition, the chorus—voiced admirably by the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra Vocal Ensemble—acts as God’s emissary to the unfolding action, as in Act I, Scene II (“It is the Lord who gave you your authority”). But the chorus also gives additional emotional heft to David’s baser impulses, which are clearly a distortion of the power bestowed to him by God (“Down with poor and honest man!”) However, these elements are upstaged by the opera’s natural effectiveness as a quintessential love-triangle. The sheer will of human nature and the undeniability of desire are the more vibrant forces both musically and dramatically, rather than any overt moral imperative representative of God’s supremacy. 

Kleiberg is at his best when pairing the emotional import of librettist Jessica Gordon’s English text with gorgeously sinuous melodies and sleek, sumptuous arrangements, realized here with great aplomb by the Tõnu Kaljuste-led Trondheim Symphony Orchestra. In tender moments of lust and infatuation, Kleiberg relies on shimmering strings and meandering flute solos; in instances of calculated manipulation against Uriah (tenor Fredrik Akselberg), the composer employs a recurring hypnotic and propulsive theme in the vibraphone and reed instruments, projecting the twisted logic and desperate machinations of David’s inner psychology.

Baritone Johannes Weisser brings an impressive versatility of timbres to the role of David. A robust singer, he displays grit and resonance on the low end, understated strength in the middle and a wistful, almost tenor-like affectation in his upper range. As the coveted wife Bathsheba, mezzo soprano Anna Einarsson brings an air of resilience heard in each impassioned phrase. Her voice is one of natural beauty, perpetually veiled in melancholy, making her plight as a woman caught between the rightful love of her husband and the illicit lust of her king all the more empathy-inducing.

The fidelity of the recording—produced and engineered by Morten Lindberg—is top-notch; the Pure Audio Blu-ray emanates with the vitality and immediacy of live performance. (The album is also readily available on iTunes.) Overall, David and Bathsheba isa beautiful recording, but the opera itself seems uncertain as to whether it is a morality tale reinforcing God’s sovereignty or a secularized look at human nature’s inconsistencies. © 2013 Opera News

The review as JPEG

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