Spicer, Kresimir

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.

DidoneFrancesco Cavalli - La Didone

Théâtre de Caen, 2011 | William Christie, Clément Herve-Léger, Anna Bonitatibus, Kresimir Spicer, Xavier Sabata, Maria Streijffert, Terry Wey, Katherine Watson, Tehila Nini Goldstein, Claire Debono, Joseph Cornwell, Victor Torres, Valerio Contaldo, Mariana Rewerski, Matthias Vidal, Francisco Javier Borda | Opus Arte

Depending on the work, depending on who is playing it and depending on how it is staged, Cavalli’s operas - some of the oldest works in existence - can struggle to hold the attention of a modern audience. They can be long, usually based on classical subjects, consist of long stretches of recitative accompanied principally on harpsichord and lyrone basso continuo with a limited range of period string instruments. There’s little in the works that lends itself to exciting staging in the way of, for example, the French regal entertainments of Lully and Campra, with all their ballet sequences and choral arrangements. There are no such difficulties with this particular work - one of Cavalli’s earliest operas first performed in 1641 - a version of the familiar story of the Fall of Troy and the love story of Dido and Aeneas, and with the production being in the hands of William Christie and his company, Les Arts Florissants, there are no concerns either about the musical interpretation of La Didone, which is staged with dramatic intensity by Clément Herve-Léger.

What makes La Didone rather more accessible than some works of early opera is the libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, the librettist responsible for Monteverdi’s ground-breaking L’Incoronazione di Poppea, an opera that daringly put real characters onto the stage for the first time rather than the gods and heroes of ancient mythology. Even though La Didone is related to the mythological figures of Virgil’s epic Latin poem ‘The Aeneid‘, it benefits nonetheless from Busenello’s wonderful humanising of the characters and indeed the gods. The libretto isn’t made up of the usual vague pronouncements and declarations, but is dramatically and poetically expressive of the range of human emotions and passions that are brought out by this expansive work. In the first half - in the model followed by Berlioz in the now more familiar Les Troyens - the libretto captures the true horror and nature of the experience of war, the destruction of one’s country and with it one’s hopes and dreams. The second half also corresponds with Berlioz’s division, with Aeneas’ arrival in Carthage and with the trials that are brought by love and betrayal, expressed in a variety of ways, through Dido’s love for her dead husband, her rejection of Iarbas, and in her love for Aeneas’ that is curtailed by his sense of duty (to the gods) to abandon her and strike out for Italy.

This wonderfully rich story is brilliantly described in Busenello’s libretto, but if it truly achieves the same kind of expression of human passions that can be found in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, it’s also due to the musical compositions of Cavalli, himself a pupil of Monteverdi. William Christie directs this from the harpsichord and the rhythms and tone are clear, precise and dynamically attuned to the emotional content of the work, emphasising the horror with driving chords and accompanying the delicate laments and love-songs with heartfelt lyricism. Even without a synopsis (there isn’t a detailed one with this DVD/BD release unfortunately), it’s not difficult to follow what is going on thanks to the clear libretto where figures introduce themselves naturally, and due to the musical accompaniment that defines them. This is particularly strong in the tricky first Act, where in addition to gods directing the events, numerous figures wander around the dark ruins of Troy in despair, terrorised by marauding Greeks - Coroebus dying in the arms of Cassandra, Hecuba’s despair for the fate of the women, Aeneas’s wife Creusa murdered and returning as a ghostly figure. Appropriately then, it all looks and sounds like the Hades of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo supplanted into the hell of a destroyed Troy.

Things actually become a little more confusing in the Carthage sections in this production with the doubling up of roles, when the same singer who played Aeneas’ dead wife Creusa in Act 1 (Tehila Nini Goldstein) turns up in Act 2 as Juno trying to destroy him. Even trickier, Cupid disguises himself as Aeneas’ son Ascanio in Act 2 to bring about the love between Aeneas and Dido, so although it makes for a convincing disguise when both Cupid and Ascanio are played by the same person (Terry Wey), it could be just a little confusing. (The chaptering, available as a pop-up on BD, will however clarify any other confusion over which characters are singing at any time). The fact that it works is down to the strong direction and staging working in perfect accordance with the music and the drama of the libretto. Clément Herve-Léger keeps the sets simple, employing only one or two large and effective symbolic gestures. It’s not period, but other than the inappropriate scaffolding for the down-to-earth gods and Venus lugging a suitcase for her journey to Carthage - an effort to humanise the appearances of the gods in line with the nature of the work and against the tradition of big fanfares and mechanical stage entrances - there are no distracting modern anachronisms.

With the simplicity of the staging and the sparseness of the orchestration, compared to conventional opera, much depends on the quality of the singing here. Populated extensively from Christie’s ‘Jardin des Voix‘ school for new young talent, the singing is exceptional right across the whole cast. Anna Bonitatibus is a clear, powerful and resonant Didone (Dido), and Kresimir Spicer a gentle lyrical Enea (Aeneas), both of them commanding and deeply expressive in the central roles, but the cast - clearly trained for this kind of singing - is made up of youthful voices filled with passion, clarity and a purity of tone that is well suited to early opera (some however - such as Francisco Javier Borda playing both Ilioneo and Mercury - try a little too hard). La Didone is still not without some longeurs for anyone unfamiliar with early opera, but this is certainly one of the more accessible works of this period, treated to a beautiful looking and fresh sounding production from Les Arts Florissants, that brings a much needed vitality to this rare 370 year-old work.

Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release comes with impressive specifications in terms of High Definition image and sound. The period instruments in particular have a wonderful clarity of tone within the natural reverb of the Caen theatre. It sounds a little bright and there’s no low-frequency range at all in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, but it’s distributed well emphasising the fragility of the delicate playing and the strength of the vocal expression. The PCM Stereo mix is also clear and true. The BD is dual-layer BD50, 1080i and all-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French and German only. There are no extra features other than a Cast Gallery and a booklet with an essay on the work which has a brief outline of the story, but there is no detailed synopsis.