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.