Thursday, 19 July 2012

Christie Charpentier David et Jonathas Aix

Marc-Antoine Charpentier's David et Jonathas live from Aix-en-Provence is now available streamed outside France on This is one of the big highlights of the baroque year. It's major profile because William Christie conducts, and anything he and Les Arts Florissantes dedicate themselves to is a milestone. The production travels to the Opéra comique in Paris, to Caen, Madrid and concerrft stagings in Edinburgh and elsewhere. Christie excels - watch the elegance of his conducting (very well picked up on film),

Musically this is divine, the intricate correspondances  done with exquiste clarity and delicacy. In David et Jonathas, this freedom of spirit is very much part of what the opera is about. David is a hero, who has killed Goliath, but the times he lives in are turbulent. War, intrigue, bluff and counter-bluff, the sordid stuff of politics. Although David is loyal to King Saul, he's forced to flee to the Philistines who welcome him. Despite negotiations for peace, war breaks out again, Briefly David and Jonathas are reunited, but Jonathas is killed. Saul dies, heartbroken. David becomes King.

We know the plot from the Old Testament, but Charpentier fleshes it out with wonderful music. The parts for David and Jonathas are beautiful: theirs is a love story as much as a symbol of purity against a background of sordid violence. Christie chooses his singers well. Pascal Charbonneau, who sings David, frequently reaches countertenor territory. The part was written for alto, to contrast with the very low baritone of Saul, (Neal Davis)  and the bass of Achis (Frédéric Caton). Ana Quintans sings Jonathas. It's a trouser part because a high. bright voice shows how young and beautiful Jonathas was, beloved by all.

The interplay between voices and orchestra  is superb, the formal patterns of baroque art expressed in music. Brightness and depth, constant weaving of textures - political intrigue woven into the very fabric of the form.  Christie's precision keeps the layers bright : no room for approximation in this score.

 Thus Andreas Hoimoki's staging worked extremely well with the clarity of Christie's approach, and with Charpentier's idiom. The set (Paul Zoller) is as simple, throwing focus on the singers, yet a pine panelling background lit as luminously as this evokes the golden glow of baroque paintings and indeed the instruments in the orchestra.

Intelligent use of space and boxed space to create the flow of exterior and crowd scenes, and interior, private intensity. The long non-vocal passages might once have been filled with formal masques. Here, they're used to hint at background. Jonathas, as a young boy, stands before the bier of his dead mother. The young David enters and comforts him, but Saul's disturbed to see them embrace. He in turn embraces the portrait of his late wife which mesmerized hius son. Costumes are timeless, sufficiently middle eastern to remind us of Biblical times.

The Israelites and Philistines are distinguished by their music rather than by costume (some of the Philistines wear a red fez), but again this is true to plot. For thouands of years before 1948, there was conflict in these lands. Charpentier and his audiences weren't in the least bothered about historical accuracy, so neither should we be. Indeed, seeing Jonathas clothed in short pants (not robe) is a subtle reminder that David and Jonathan relationships have happened throughout history. Homoki doesn't over-emphasize, but Charpentier and his audiences weren't naive. Chorus scenes are well blocked, almost like choreography: I kept thinking of 17th century paintings, utterly approrpriate to Charpentier's period.
(photo : Pascal Victor)

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