Davies, Neal


DavidMarc-Antoine Charpentier - David et Jonathas

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | William Christie, Les Arts Florissantes, Andreas Homoki, Pascal Charbonneau, Ana Quintans, Neal Davies, Frédéric Caton, Krešimir Špicer, Dominique Visse, Pierre Bessière | Aix-en-Provence - 11 July 2012

Marc-Antoine Charpentier worked for many years in the shadow of the officially appointed court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and it seems he has remained in his shadow ever since, largely overlooked even as French Baroque music is being rediscovered in modern times, favouring Lully and his successor Rameau over Charpentier and Campra. There may be genuine musicological reasons for this choice, but judging by this rare performance of Charpentier’s David et Jonathas for the 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival - the first staged performance of the work in over 300 years - the problem seems to lie with the difficulty of adapting this kind of work for a modern stage, since musically it is rather something of a delight.

First performed in 1688, a year after the death of Lully, David et Jonathas, a “Biblical tragedy in five acts with a prologue” is based on the friendship between David - slayer of Goliath - and Jonathas, the son of King Saul. The difficulty with adapting this work to a stage production is similar to the nature of attempting to stage Handel’s religious oratorios, the libretto by Père François de Paule Bretonneau in this case making it somewhat difficult to grasp a clear dramatic or narrative thread. Essentially however, the main thrust of the work is relatively straightforward, dealing with Saul’s growing mistrust of the shepherd boy David, who he has initially welcomed into his company. David is shown to be a popular hero, the people celebrating his successes in battle, but Saul suspects that he may be using his popularity and his friendship with his son Jonathas as a means to overthrow his rule and replace him as king of Israel.

Another reason why the work may be difficult to follow was that it was originally written to be performed as musical interludes inserted into a performance of the theatrical drama Saul. The Aix production does its best to create some dramatic situations out of this Biblical story, adding flashback scenes during what would have been musical ballet sequences that fill out the background of the historical conflicts, building up the childhoods of David and Jonathas and including other significant incidents such as the death of Saul’s wife, all of which seems to have an impact on destabilising the king’s mind, leading to more wars and a tragic outcome. The Aix production also notionally sets this staging of the opera during the Palestinian Civil War and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, which may or may not be necessary as a meaningful parallel for the audience - but other than perhaps influencing the costume design, in reality there’s little direct reference made to the origins of the modern political conflict in the region.

The stage design rather places the action within a box of bare wood panelling, sparsely decorated with nothing more than wooden chairs and a long table, giving the impression more of a Quaker community room, or even occasionally looking like something out of a Western. Cleverly designed (I still can’t work out quite how they manage it), the walls and ceilings move to compress the space, open it out or split it into several rooms, blocking and boxing in to create a dramatic focus and tension to the singing. It’s hardly necessary, since the singing itself is more than capable of finding the right dramatic tone, and if anything the staging tends to over-emphasise it and place it at odds with the often delicate elegance of Charpentier’s beautiful musical arrangements and joyous choruses.

More often it’s simply trying to make the opera visually more interesting and dramatic than it might otherwise be. The production sparks into life during those magnificent choral arrangements, celebrating David’s successes in battle, and there are many of those. It’s less successful in providing psychological justification - and even suggestion of sexual attraction in the closeness of the relationship between the two men (notwithstanding the role of Jonathas being performed by a female singer). If the libretto and the flashback scenes don’t really bring this out sufficiently, it is however made impressively real and on occasion genuinely touching through Charpentier’s beautiful use of melody and his use of woodwind instruments - evocatively brought out by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants (who incidentally, take their name from a Charpentier opera) - and through the fine singing performances.

As David, Pascal Charbonneau has a powerful presence and voice, wonderfully expressive in a way that gives genuine character to the role, but it does tend to sound slightly constricted and nasal on those more stretched emotional sections - and this is a tragedy where the despairing cry of ‘Hélas!’ features heavily. I don’t think the actual acoustic of the boxed stage helps though. Elsewhere the singing and dramatic performances were excellent, even if the true quality of Ana Quintans singing only really came through in the very moving final act death scene of Jonathas. Neal Davies sang Saul with force and passion, but the stage direction and imagery used to convey his descent into paranoia suspicion and grief wasn’t always convincing. Still, this is clearly an extremely difficult work to adapt dramatically to the modern stage, but more than worthwhile for the opportunity of seeing this rarity from a neglected composer given full dramatic consideration and performed so well.

This performance of David et Jonathas was recorded at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on 11th July 2012 and viewed via internet streaming. It is currently still available to view on the ARTE WebLive web site or via the ArtsFlo Media site. Some region restrictions might apply.

BelshazzarGeorge Frideric Handel - Belshazzar

Grand Théâtre de Provence, Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2008 | Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik, RIAS Kammerchor, Christof Nel, René Jacobs, Kenneth Tarver, Rosemary Joshua, Bejun Mehta, Kristina Hammerström | Harmonia Mundi

Belshazzar, written in 1744, was among the first English oratorios composed by Handel after he had abandoned the Italian opera form, and consequently has an interesting place among the composer’s works, still retaining some the dramatic content and style of opera composition. The dramatic content comes about due to the nature of the subject, which is biblical in nature, if not entirely a religious piece of work. So while there are contemplative hymns to God and fervent pleas for deliverance sung throughout, the historical and religious conflicts means that there is a bit more variety to the content and the tone, as well as the opportunity for a staging to apply other meaningful references that could have some present-day significance.

Taking place in 539BC, the Babylon of King Belshazzar is under siege from Cyrus, Prince of the Medes and Persians. The king’s mother Nitocris has a grim foreboding that the city will fall, and this is confirmed by the prophet Daniel. Cyrus has comes up with a plan to divert the Euphrates, and enter the city through its channel while Belshazzar and his men are celebrating the feast of Sesach, the god of wine. Despite warnings and pleas from Nitocris and Daniel, Belshazzar uses the occasion to extend the drunkenness to sacrilegious behaviour that horrifies the Jewish population that are held in captivity in the city. Cyrus enters the city and liberates the Jews from bondage, promising to set up a new Jerusalem.

The plot is not overly complicated for a three-act, almost three-hour oratorio, but there is a certain amount of dramatic ground to cover, which means that there is more opera seria-like recitative in Balshazzar, and consequently, it may not be always quite as musical and melodious as later Handel oratorios. And if the individual sections are not the most memorable or notable Handel however, the impact of the oratorio is on a dramatic level and in the piece as a whole. It’s staged here for the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2008 by Christof Nel in a manner that doesn’t set any modern agenda or updated interpretation of the work, letting the dramatic action be dictated by the words of the libretto. One can see nonetheless that Belshazzar is not just a biblical or historical work, but that it applies as much to the role of a monarch or ruler, which has meaning for the period that the work was written, as well as having relevance to present-day conflicts not so far away from where this is set in antiquity.

René Jacobs conducts the Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik and the RIAS Kammerchor through a fine live performance of Belshazzar at Aix. The singing in English, from principals and chorus soloists alike, is uniformly wonderful across the whole range of voices – tenor, counter-tenor, soprano, mezzo-soprano, bass and male alto – that Handel brilliantly composes for and blends together. Bejun Mehta (whose crystal clear countertenor can also be heard to terrific effect in a recent production of Handel’s Theodora) is notable here as Cyrus and Kenneth Tarver is fine as Belshazzar, but even more impressive are Rosemary Joshua as Nitocris and Kristina Hammerström as Daniel. Such fine singing could not have been easy either with the acting demanded – a drenched Tarver clearly finds it too much – but a good balance between both is achieved in the staging.

I’m not entirely happy with the HD transfer on the Blu-ray from Harmonia Mundi. Even though it’s on a BD50 disc, the encoding is not great, resulting in a faint jerkiness and blurring when there is movement on the screen. The effect may be variable on different players with better refresh rates, but this is the first BD I’ve come across with such a problem. There isn’t enough movement on the screen for this to become a significant issue, but it could be a minor irritation. The audio tracks are in the standard PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and are both fine for the demands of the orchestration and the singing. Subtitles are in English, French and German only. Other than a text synopsis, there are no extra features on the Blu-ray disc.