Davide Penitente Rides Again

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

This bizarre event from the Salzburg Festival is a performance by Marc Minkowski and the Salzburg Bach Choir and his Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble of Mozart’s little-performed cantata Davide penitente, the composer’s own reworking of his stupendous, unfinished Mass in C minor. To the 45 minutes of the cantata have been added the “March of the Priests” from The Magic Flute and the Masonic Funeral Music K. 477, with a postlude of the Adagio and Fugue in C minor K. 546. The performance takes place in one of Salzburg’s three main concert and opera venues, the Felsenreitschule, a riding school and stables from the time of the Habsburg Empire. The walls are made of stone and the three vocal soloists and musicians are placed in the arcades that line the back wall of the playing area. The stage area is covered in sand.

The semi-stars of the evening are 15 horses of the Académie équestre de Versailles under the strict direction of rider-performer Bartabas, who directed the show and created the dressage. Just for the record, I despise dressage–I think it’s unnatural and cruel to the horses–but for this occasion I was able to put that prejudice aside and see the event for what it was, a sort of off-the-wall circus act for the rich, accompanied by a good performance of great music. If it seems as if I’m damning with faint praise, well, perhaps I am.

The gorgeous horses ridden by slim, straight-backed women perform a type of equestrian ballet, sometimes as solos, sometimes en masse. The manner in which Bartabas (yes, one name only) has trained and arranged the work is remarkable; he also rides–a dark, spooky figure in black cloak, very effective in the “Flute” and Masonic Music. It is a study in weird elegance, a once-in-a-lifetime show. The fact that every one of the three performances was sold out tells us something, as does the audience’s rapturous reaction. The aura of seriousness could be cut with a knife.

Does the movement match the music? Well, sometimes, and when it doesn’t we can pretend it does: the slower, more noble passages and quick choruses fare best–yes, the former has the horses moving with knee-crippling slowness and classiness, and they gallop during the fast passages. How do you depict coloratura on horses? You don’t–but they still do pretty stuff. Enough about the horses.

The musical performance is excellent. Minkowski conducts Mozart as Mozart and not as either a Baroque composer or the accompaniment of a horse opera. “Davide” (or rather, the Mass) contains some of the finest music Mozart ever wrote: an exquisite soprano aria, a fine duet, and a soprano/mezzo/tenor trio that has a bouncy, perpetual-motion feel to it (it’s the Quoniam of the Mass), and Minkowski gets the flow just right, never, as they say, missing a beat. The singers are praiseworthy, with Christiane Karg’s soprano a particular beauty. The chorus’ work is fine, as is the playing. In all, this is a unique show that I never plan to watch again; sadly, it can make one overlook the brilliant music. Picture and sound are excellent, and the direction for small screen has been intelligently thought through. Subtitles in all European languages and Korean and Japanese.

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Recording Details:

  • Christiane Karg (soprano); Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano); Stanislas de Barbeyrac (tenor)
  • Les Musiciens du Louvre, Salzburger Bachchor, Marc Minkowski

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