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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Opera Review: As the Walls Close In, a King is Made

Les Arts Florissants bring David et Jonathas to BAM.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Jonathan (Ana Quintans, left) and David (Pascal Charbonneau)
greet the Israelites in a scene from David et Jonathas. 
Photo by Julieta Cervantes © 2013 BAM/Les Arts Florissants.
In 1979, the period performance group Les Arts Florissants took their name from an opera by French baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. This week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the ensemble, under the baton of its founder William Christie, presented another Charpentier gem, the biblical drama David et Jonathas. Written in 1688 and designed to be played in alternating acts with Saul (a play written by a French Jesuit) this is an example of tragedie-biblique, where a sacred story is treated in the style of early French opera.


Charpentier was among the most forward-thinking of French baroque composers, with a flowing, nearly seamless style enchants the ear. This is not the kind of orchestration one might expect from stereotypical baroque opera" it is rich and full-bodied, supporting the singers while allowing the ensemble to express virtuosity in its own right. Cleverly blended continuo (violin, theorbo and organ) accompanies recitatives. The arias reveal a penchant for long melodic lines with hints of chromaticism, anticipating the "classical" revolution of the 18th century and the music dramas of Wagner.

This production, by German director Andreas Homoki, was originally seen at Aix-en-Provence. Paul Zoller's spartan set consists of three pine-panelled rooms with partitions that appear and withdraw as needed. The choristers, playing Jews and Philistines appear as a mix of citizenry in Western and Arabic dress, underlining the modern relevance of this ancient drama. In a stunning stage coup, the scene with the Witch of Endor featured cross-dressed tenor Dominique Visse, accompanied by a small army of choristers in identical brown wigs and yellow '50s-style house-dresses.

Despite these updates, the events from the Book of Samuel are played as straight tragedy. The production shows the lifelong friendship between David and Jonathan by introducing them as two children, showing the initial bond between them and the presence of Saul as a force driving them apart. In an effective theatrical coup, the walls of the set literally close in on characters in psychological torment, creating an unforgettable, claustrophobic stage picture.

Tenor Pascal Charbonneau embodied the conflicted David with a sweet, clear tenor, soaring through the complex vocal figurations and demanding, lyric writing. He was perfectly matched with soprano Ana Quintans, who made Jonathan a tragic, ignored and doomed figure. Jonathas' long, agonizing death scene (reminiscent, in a way of Wagner in its sheer length) was a highlight of the second act, a tragic ending which makes David's ascent to the throne a Pyrrhic victory.

As Saul, baritone Neal Davies gave the barn-burning performance of the evening, capturing the King's  onrushing sense of dread. In taking the viewer inside the king's psychodrama, Charpentier shows penetrating insight into the human condition with the increasingly chopped and jittery vocal line indicating the onset of madness. This came to its peak in the scene between Saul and La Pythonisse (the Biblical Witch of Endor) played by the athletic tenor Dominique Visse.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.