The rare biblical opera 'David and Jonathas' is like 'Médée', one of the major works of the French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The opera has been in the repertoire of Les Arts Florissants since 1988 and was first presented in a stage production by William Christie at the Aix-en-Provence Festival 2012. This DVD release is a special event for all Baroque music lovers.
Written a year after the death of Lully, this lyric tragedy allows Charpentier to develop beyond the religious dimension, a story of male friendship and forbidden love between David and Jonathas. An excellent cast gathered around William Christie and Les Arts Florissants brings young singers to the title roles: Pascal Charbonneau, aRead more tenor and a former student of the European Academy of Music, sings David. The role of Jonathas is given to a woman: soprano Ana Quintans.
The staging by Andreas Homoki (Director of the Zurich Opera since summer 2012) focuses on the psychological aspect of this forbidden love story, giving a moving reading of the drama.
Direction: Andreas Homoki
Scenography: Paul Zoller
Costumes: Gideon Davey
Lighting: Franck Evin
R E V I E W:
Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s lack of official affiliation with the French court’s rather formal musical establishment under Jean-Baptiste Lully had two effects, as I noted in my other review this issue. First, he was free to do other things, and since Lully was not especially interested in sacred music, Charpentier was pretty much left on his own to develop music in the church, which he did in a grand style. As a sideline, he was also freed from the inevitable debate that arose between adherents of the French and Italian styles, for having been trained in Italy, he felt free to dip in and out of both with some alacrity. Second, as someone not under Lully’s sway, his desire to compose for the stage was rather curtailed, since the tragédie lyrique was not something he was able to compose officially. Not until 1693 did his only work in this genre, Medée, come to the stage, notably a number of years after Lully’s death and the implosion of his musical dynasty. In the meantime, he dabbled in the form with a series of Jesuit works for the Collège de Louis-le-Grand, of which David et Jonathas from 1688 was the most “operatic” (though of course he was able to get a number of pastorals and ballets performed at the Opéra). Consisting of the usual five acts and prologue, he altered the form somewhat, interspersing the Divertissement at the beginning and end of each act instead of placing it all in a bunch at the end. Otherwise, the flow of the work pretty much follows that of the normal secular works composed by Lully and others.
Insofar as the plot goes, this seems to have been a gloss on a play by Etienne Chamillart, performed at the same time, which fleshes out the story of the friendship of David and Jonathan. In a prologue, the seer (here called somewhat ironically La Pythonesse instead of the Witch of Endor) foretells Saul’s defeat through the shade of the prophet Samuel. Act One opens with the Philistines, here seemingly dressed in a motley sartorial concoction of djelabas, working clothes with suspenders, and bright red fezzes, cheering on David (sung here by high tenor Paul Charbonneau), while their King, Achis (sung with a resonant bass by Frédéric Caton, dressed like a Grand Mufti), decides to negotiate a truce with Saul (sung in an equally expressive and resonant bass by Neal Davies, dressed in a weskit and working-class pants). This annoys the general of the Philistine army, Joabel (sung in a lighter tenor by Kre?imir ?picer, who is somehow dressed in a strange turban and has a stringy long goatee), who then plots to destroy David. In the meantime, David meets with his friend Jonathas (sung in a pants role by soprano Ana Quintans, who sports a strange intellectual look replete with dark-rimmed glasses). In the Third Act, Saul’s jealousy explodes, and when Achis won’t execute David and Jonathas also refuses, he prepares to abrogate the truce with the Philistines. Jonathas is gravely wounded in the battle that follows, and although filled with remorse, Saul still attempts to kill David, even though mortally wounded himself. When Jonathas dies in David’s arms, David is overcome with despair, and even the proclamation by Achis that David is now the King of Israel fails to cheer him up.
As far as plots for operas go, this one is probably a step up from the usual opera seria or French classical plot of the time, for it contains a great deal of pathos and character development. If there is a moral to the story, it seems rather dispersed among the various turns of the plot. The music is set in a through-composed manner, with recitative and aria flowing easily in and out of each other, and Charpentier’s choice of limiting the dances to the beginnings and ends of each act allows for the plot to develop more smoothly.
Insofar as the music goes, the singing is first-rate and, as expected, William Christie’s venerable Arts Florissants ensemble is virtually flawless in their execution of Charpentier’s rich score. If this was a disc, I would purchase it in an instant. I found it every bit as good if not better than his release back in 1998 on Harmonia Mundi (which was re-released just this past year), and I like it much better than the old Erato recording with Opera Lyon. Unfortunately, it is not, and the reason is the staging. The set is a movable wooden box, with basically a large wood picnic table and chairs for props. The walls are movable, including an awkward moment in the final triumphal chorus scene at the end where the chorus is crowded together as the walls hem them in, looking very much at one moment like the interior of a cattle car. The costumes are also bizarre. The Israelites look very much like refugees from some sort of Russian steppe, sometimes with Hasidic hats, while the Philistines are a mismatched bunch of pseudo-Turkish peasants, looking for all the world like they desperately need both shaves and baths. The principals are not immune to this sartorial faux pas, for Jonathas looks like a bit of a nerd and David a working-class bloke straight from a factory. Even their “friendship” is supposed to heighten the homoerotic story, but Quintans doesn’t really act like a guy, just someone who has cross-dressed. Finally, Neal Davies has been directed to play Saul mostly on his knees, grimacing ferociously into the camera. Even the Pythoness and her hoard of priestesses look like they stepped right out of a rural diner in their checked gingham dresses. Of course, this has nothing to do with Charpentier or his dramatic music, or even the terrific musicality of the vocalists. But for visuals, this is yet another bizarre attempt to “update” the setting by doing something artistically unfathomable. Too bad; the artistry of the performers deserves better.
David et Jonathas, H 490by Marc-Antoine Charpentier Performer:
Kresimir Spicer (Tenor),
Pascal Charbonneau (Tenor),
Frédéric Caton (Bass),
Ana Quintans (Soprano),
Neal Davies (Bass),
Dominique Visse (Countertenor)
Les Arts Florissants
Period: Baroque Written: 1688; France
Average Customer Review: ( 3 Customer Reviews )
Horrible VideoJuly 19, 2014By Andre Friedman See All My Reviews"The video is primitive, out of focus which makes the disk impossible to view and listen to despite the beautiful musical performance of Maestro Christie and his ensamble"Report Abuse
Put aside September 2, 2013By Anthony G. (SANTA FE, NM)See All My Reviews"Put aside any reservations you may have about being tempted to buy this title. It is quintessential beauty in every sense."Report Abuse
Beautiful, soulfulMay 29, 2013By Marina Y. (Richmond Hill, NY)See All My Reviews"I have seen this opera in NY City Center this spring and fell in love with it. Beautiful music, singing, and staging!"Report Abuse