Opera Review – David et Jonathas

This review should appear at Opera Britannia shortly.

Les Arts Florissants – Edinburgh Festival – 17 August 2012

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This production of Charpentier’s biblical epic is a showcase for some exquisite vocal work which is delivered despite an incoherent dramatic interpretation which does nothing to aid a modern appreciation of the work at hand.

From the moment the curtain rises, the interpretation of this piece that we are going to be subjected to is clear. The cast stand motionless staring out at the audience in vaguely middle-eastern dress. Then as the music proceeds they separate out into two groups, one on either side of the stage. Our eyes look them over and realise that they are in fact wearing different dress. The men on one side of the stage (the Hebrews) are wearing black felts hats. The men on the other side (the Philistines) are wearing fezes. The two groups glare at one another and it becomes immediately apparent that the director thinks it is reasonable to retell the story of David and Jonathan using the stage directions from a left-over production of The Montagues and Capulets. The trouble is, and it is trouble that bedevils the work from the outset, David and Jonathan are not Romeo and Juliet at all. Their saga is one which is fundamentally about suspected treachery within a royal palace. Saul’s fundamental fear is that he will be overthrown by one of his own not by an enemy. Biblically, it is a saga with more than enough drama to get us through many a night at the opera. Sadly that rich heritage is ignored by a director apparently intent on delivering to us his own peculiar baroque confection which might just as well be entitled West Bank Story.

The sparse set is the inside of a wooden box. It is long. It is rectangular. It is lit with a cold, direct lighting scheme which will do us no favours as the evening progresses. And the sides of the stage move. They move in. They move out. They move in whenever any of the characters is feeling under pressure. They move out when the tension eases. After you’ve seen the walls move in and out a few times it all feels rather predictable. And they move in and they move out all over again.

The moving walls were also used to make smaller cuboid shapes in which some of the scenes were to occur though inevitably, the narrower the stage became, the more that audience members on either side of the stage missed some of the action.

However, notwithstanding this rather dull action on stage it soon became apparent that the joys to be found in the piece are all musical rather than dramatic. The singing was simply gorgeous.

In a strong cast, the two singers playing the title roles were outstanding. Pascal Charbonneau’s David was gentle on the eye and intense in his singing. Ana Quintans as Jonathas had a lightness of touch in her voice that seemed completely effortless. They sang well together though as male tenor kissed female soprano it was difficult to really enter into the conceit of a homoerotic undertone to their relationship.

Neal Davies’s Saul was not only King of Israel but also king of the stage. Though his opposite number in the Philistine army (Frédéric Caton as Achis) was to beat him in battle, Davies was to win the battle of the voices. His Saul was troubled, grieving and difficult to handle. Acted flashback scenes during the musical ballet interludes attempted to give us some insight into Saul’s troubles and why he was so high maintenance. Thus we had two child actors portraying a youthful David and Jonathas being present at the death of Saul’s wife. Now, all this is directorial embellishment, unsupported either by the text used by Charpentier or the text of Holy Writ itself, as any Edinburgh audience Sunday-schooled in presbyterian Morningside would surely have known. They might also have thought that presenting the Witch of Endor in the same outfit as Saul’s imagined wife, the better to call up the ghost of father-figure Samuel the Prophet, was taking one neo-Freudian step too far.

However, here again, though what was happening on stage was quite bewildering, the singing was superb. The stage was filled after a while with many women identically clad as Saul’s imaginary wife. As the Witch sang about King Saul’s troubles the wives all writhed around the stage. It was certainly visually very compelling but one was left wondering what was going on. The appearance of Samuel’s ghost to warn that Saul would come to a bad end was surely deserving of more theatrical magic than simply being sung off-stage to give the effect that Saul was hearing an inner voice. This, combined with the curious decision to move this revelation, which forms the prologue to Charpentier’s work to the end of the first half robbed the story of much of its essential tragedy.

However, that Witch could sing. Dominique Viese’s cross-dressing harpy was weird, strange and bewildering but his voice was one of the great highlights of the evening. Vocally, he was possessed a sorcery that not all countertenor posses; soaring high with a clever and entirely appropriate nastiness.

The star of the show though was not one of its principle singers. Without any doubt, the evening was made worthwhile by the most enchanting choral singing. Even when dealing with the most complex and decorated sections of Charpentier’s sumptuous score, the chorus of Les Arts Florissant was disciplined, precise and graced with vocal depth and insight. The greatest test of a choir is whether it can move me in a single word. As Jonathas lay dying in David’s arms, the whole ensemble cried “Alas, alas” with such pathos that the effect was heart-rending.

Down in the pit it was obvious that William Christie was firmly in charge.  A few early fluffs in the woodwind were soon put far from mind as the band got into its stride with Charpentier’s complicated and much embroidered rhythms. Particular note should be paid to whoever was operating the thunder sheet. The thunder appeared to roll around the theatre, unsettling and very real indeed.

The Edinburgh International Festival has made a great habit of putting on semi-staged works in recent years. It was disappointing that this fully staged piece would probably have worked better in an oratorio setting than by being given this dull and also confusing staging by director Andreas Homoki.

William Christie first tackled this piece in a great recording in 1998. The passion remains in the music. The business on stage did little to enhance the thrill and excitement of hearing Les Arts Florissants, still at the top of their game.

Rating: ★★★☆☆


  1. Susan Sheppard Hedges says

    Oh, I am so glad to read this, Kelvin. I feel as if I were there! William Christie is so good a getting good singers and instrumentalists together! I am sure that Dominique Visse was tremendous! I love his voice. And he is not afraid to sound less than ‘pretty’ if the role calls for it. It’s too bad the direction was so bad. I have come to the conclusion that “directors with vision” are the bane of Baroque Operas.
    Thanks for this review!

  2. T Lawson says

    Saw this 20th August. Like so many opera directors these days, in their desire to appear ‘imaginative’, they completely rob opera of their magic. Shame on them to spoil such wonderful music and singing!

  3. Well, if I’m honest, the direction didn’t spoil the music and singing for me. They were simply gorgeous.

    I’m also pleased that directors take risks. Fortune favours the brave, after all. This one didn’t really work for me, but I’m glad it was attempted and there are others for whom it was a great highlight of the festival.

    All power to directors who make outrageous choices, I say. Sometimes they will take us to unimagined bliss.

  4. I’m glad I’m not the only one to have thought this – I found the staging egregiously ugly (it was like a sauna designed by Edgar Allen Poe) and utterly confusing. This wasn’t helped by the surtitles failing for part of the production, nor by my error in taking a synopsis with me rather than buying the programme.

  5. I agree the overtly gay love story theme brings baggage to the opera that it would be better off without. Nevertheless the opera is about the love of David for Jonathan. The opera story isn’t the same as the biblical story. Wonderful performance overall.

  6. Simon says

    Thanks for your review, which I enjoyed reading. I agree that the musical standards were marvellously high – I have attended many performances by Les Artes Florissantes, since 1997, and they don’t let their listeners down!

    I didn’t agree about the production – I enjoyed discovering the work through the journey taken by the director and his team. I found the costumes engaging, startling the work into a surprising realism. I found having the young David and Jonathan present added all sorts of energies to the story. Conflation of the Witch of Endor and Saul’s dead wife was an extraordinary thing to do – seeing this ancient story through a Jungian/Freudian lense was fascinating and – at times – bewildering. But I enjoy being a bit bewildered, and trusted this company of artists to take me on their journey.

    Jonathan’s death, leaving through a bright door into eternity, hand in hand with the young Jonathan and David was, for me, very moving.

    I don’t find it distracting to have imaginative directorial/company takes on the work that they have devoted such time to staging.

    In recent Edinburgh Festivals Jonathan Mills has brought some marvellous companies to Edinburgh, staging works that delighted many people but often, I have noticed, drew hostility from Edinburgh’s own critics.

    A Mexican company brought Graun’s baroque Montezuma in 2011, but the Edinburgh critics slated it (‘great music, crap production’) for drawing parallels with the Spanish invasion of Mexico and the modern commercialisation of the idea of Mexico as the land of sombreros and tequila.

    A Cologne Opera production of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio in 2007 brilliantly, for me and others, staged the work at the time of the work’s composition, in 1945.It threw sharp and very moving light onto the plot’s theme of indecision, and Strauss’s own indecision in dealing with Nazi powerstructures at the time he wrote this superficially escapist work. The Edinburgh critics ponderously pointed out that this was all wrong, and confusing, because Strauss’s libretto doesn’t mention the Nazis.

    Many. many of my favourite productions have been ones that might broadly be described as (and I wince as I write the word, to be honest) ‘traditional’. But I do enjoy going with an unexpected vision of a work, and I have no problem responding to the work on multiple levels simultaneously.

    Glyndebourne’s 2011 production of Handel’s Rinaldo, set in a schoolroom and school playground, caused some to complain that this in some way hid or obfuscated the source material. Yet as a result of seeing the production I was inspired to read Montefiore’s ‘Jerusalem – the Biography’ and to read Tasso’s ‘Jerusalem Delivered’, the sixteenth century epic and source. Handel and his team were a lot less respectful to Tasso than the Glydebourne team were with Handel!

    • Thanks for that comment.

      Maybe it is because I spend so much time with the psalms that the idea of David growing up a Philistine was just something that I found bewildering and too hard to take.

      As for Montezuma, actually, there was one critic, at least, who thought it was great.


  7. Simon says

    oops sorry, the Montezuma was 2010 not 2011


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