New York is again lucky to host William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Their visits are always special, and it’s not just because the unique nature of their repertory – Baroque opera, usually French, which is neglected by most of New York’s major companies – nor the virtuosic ease with which they embody this otherwise-foreign idiom. Their productions have a passionate unity of purpose and a loving, handcrafted quality that somehow seems antithetical to many of our more slick and snarky local efforts. Their present offering, a touching production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, has little in common with 2011’s Atys, but fortunately these virtues are again in full force.
While many French Baroque operas are splendid affairs that glorify the court and its monarch, David et Jonathas is a somber tragedy. Based on the Old Testament story of King Saul, the hero David, and his friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan, it was first performed at the Jesuit institution the Collège Louis-la-Grand in 1688 (where it was initially interspersed with the acts of a five-act spoken play in Latin on the same subject). The opera alone has little action but considerable psychological subtlety, with long arias for the major characters and minimal expeditionary recitative.
The setting of Andreas Homoki’s spare production is vaguely Balkan, early 20th century, where two ethnic groups (the opera’s Israelites and Philistines, here suggested to be Christian and Muslim) coexist in an uneasy alliance. It strikes an excellent balance between the specific and the universal. David is seemingly the only link between the two, friends with Jonathas since childhood – as we see in brief but clear flashbacks – and now in love. But Saul distrusts David, and Philistine Joabel exploits this to tragic results. David and Jonathas’ relationship is treated with disarming directness, and in this production Joabel’s hatred is due to a spurned attraction.
Paul Zoller’s set consists of chairs, tables, and simple wood walls that open and close to form rooms of different sizes, the crossfading sometimes moving so quickly that the curtain descended before the cadence. The costumes are brown and gray, and overall the look is rather drab, but appropriately so. The brightest color is the yellow of the dress of Saul’s dead wife, seen in flashback. Here, she also appears as La Pythonisse, the witch who summons the ghost of Samuel, Saul’s predecessor – here the entire scene is implied to be a delusion. (This scene was originally the opera’s prologue but was here moved to the middle of the opera, where it seemed to be a natural fit for the work’s emotional crescendo.)
It’s rare to see a Baroque opera performed so naturalistically. This is enabled by the unusual text: with this depiction of La Pythonisse, there is no magic, little grand ceremony, and a far greater subtlety of character than one expects of this genre. The greatest weight of the production falls on Saul, here a psychotic, dangerous man who has never really gotten over his wife’s death. Neal Davies gave a fearsomely intense performance, singing with alarming immediacy without losing the music.
As David, tenor Pascal Charbonneau was sympathetic, a gentle soul rather different from the warrior of the text. (My one complaint against the production is that the political side – apparently eliminating the war between the Israelites and the Philistines – ends up a little muddled.) While he struggled with the ridiculously high haute-contre tessitura of the role, this seemed to work from a dramatic perspective, adding another dimension to David’s sufferings. The most memorable scene of the evening may have been the Act IV lament of soprano Ana Quintans as Jonathas, whose focused, nearly vibrato-free voice ended with the walls of the set nearly closing in upon her.
In the smaller roles, Kresimir Spicer’s burlier tenor fit the roughness of Joabel’s character. The tenor Dominique Visse made a cameo as La Pythonisse like only he can with a voice jumping between tenor and countertenor, a yellow housedress and apron, and a cannily raised eyebrow. The chorus of Les Arts Florissants and their numerous small solos again showed an amazing flexibility and clarity through the most complex of counterpoint. While not the orchestral showpiece of grander operas, the continuo playing and silky string sound of the orchestra as led by Christie was subtly beautiful and impeccably executed.
Productions this affecting and beautifully performed don’t happen very often. One can only hope that BAM will bring more productions from Les Arts Florissants in the future.