One of the most sophisticated offerings in the 2012 Festival d’Aix-en-Provence is a new production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas. In contrast with the composer’s better known Médée, David has received relatively little attention from modern revivalists despite its sumptuous score and scintillating story; the “love that dare not speak its name” between Old Testament figures David and Jonathas.

© Pascal Victor
© Pascal Victor

The tragédie en musique was originally performed as an intermède among the acts of a Latin spoken drama, Saül, at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand in 1688. Both stories narrate the battles between the Philistines and the Israelites, and David allows for lyrical expression of the characters’ inner conflicts. Paul Zoller’s minimalist sets, consisting of large wooden chambers that contracted and expanded, gave literal representation to the main characters’ emotional claustrophobia. At times, the stage was divided into three chambers, providing obvious analogs to Freud’s three divisions of consciousness.

Stage Director Andreas Homoki, who currently serves as the Chief Director and Intendant of the Komische Oper Berlin, updated the action to modern-day Israel and Palestine. King Saul, anxious of David’s political ambitions and love for his son Jonathas, banishes David to Palestine, where he is welcomed as a hero. Though David encourages the two warring tribes to make peace, the jealous Israelite general Joabel incites Saul to take up arms, eventually causing Jonathas’ death as well as his own.

During the instrumental dances that punctuate the opera, Homoki embellishes the plot. First, he imagines the first encounter between David and Jonathas as young children. Then, he dramatizes David’s acceptance into the house of Saul, where he was treated almost like a second son until the untimely death of Jonathas’ mother. As Saul is unable to cope with the loss of his wife, he becomes increasingly mistrustful of David, eventually banishing him.

Homoki’s boldest directorial decision was to reinterpret the opera’s prologue as an “intermediary scene” between Acts III and IV. The scene, with dramaturgical antecedents in Sophocles’ Oedipus and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, portrays a desperate Saul seeking advice from a soothsayer, La Pythonisse. She and her coterie of spirits all appear outfitted as Saul’s wife, providing further Freudian commentary about the role of the absent wife/mother in the saga. Despite her initial failure in conjuring the ghost of the prophet Samuel, he eventually appears and reveals that the heavens have abandoned Saul.

Countertenor Dominique Visse, playing the role of La Pythonisse, was critical to bringing credibility to what otherwise could have been nothing more than Regietheater caprice. His haunting instrument and ability to pull off a pair of pumps were some of the highlights of the evening. Audiences may be familiar with his recording of the role on William Christie’s 1998 recording of David with his own Les Arts Florissants, of which Visse is a founding member.

Neal Davies played a sympathetic Saul and displayed the same level of vocal virtuosity audiences have come to expect from him over the years (despite the fact that he was too ill to participate in the opera’s final two rehearsals). Soprano Ana Quintans earned well-deserved bravas for her performance as Jonathas. She was particularly effective in her lament “A-t-on jamais souffert,” which directly follows a touching farewell scene between the title characters in Act IV.

Some may criticize the decision to cast tenor Pascal Charbonneau as David, originally scored for haute-contre. Indeed, Charbonneau seemed vocally strained throughout the entire performance. Dramatically, however, the transposition was effective, and conductor William Christie claims he “wanted him to sound like he is trying hard. A lithe voice does not work in the role.”

The production’s success would be impossible without the intellect, creativity, and hard work of maestro Christie, who was still rehearsing with the ensemble two hours before curtain on opening night. While, as previously mentioned, Christie recorded David almost fifteen years ago, he has longed to put what he considers one of Charpentier’s most sumptuous scores on stage. One hopes that this production will not be his last, and that other opera houses might be inspired to stage David under his musical direction. Certainly, there is still much to explore in this underappreciated score.

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