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M.-A. CHARPENTIER: David et Jonathas

spacer Quintans; Charbonneau, N. Davies, Caton, Špicer, Visse, Bessière; Les Arts Florissants, Christie. Director: Homoki. BelAir Classiques BAC093, 130 mins., subtitled


The tragedy of Saul, Israel's first king — his triumph, paranoia and downfall — makes one regret that ancient Israel had no theaters: the Greeks would have known just how to stage the tale. Char­pentier's David et Jonathas is a set of musical scenes composed for day-long presentation by the all-male forces of a Jesuit college, interpolated between acts of a Latin drama on the subject.

In this festival performance, Les Arts Florissants displays its well-known strengths in superb choral blend and diction, rhythmic snap and the no longer unusual sound of a full orchestra of original instruments. In a disarming interview, William Christie explains that, in 1688, France had the lowest diapason in Europe, A=392 Hz. Les Arts Florissants recorded the work for Harmonia Mundi in 1988, with all-male forces, but at modern pitch. The most significant alteration here is that Jonathas, composed for a boy soprano, is sung by Ana Quintans, a fine actress with a lovely, vibrato-free soprano whose affect is not quite boyish. Haute-contre Pascal Charbonneau brings an expressively gritty voice and tormented presence to David, here no happy warrior but one who regrets every warlike exploit, every blighted relationship. 

The awkward libretto may have left certain plot-points to the intermediary spoken drama. Director Andreas Homoki has therefore created his own scenario, in which the actions of the singers often contradict their words. (You can turn off the titles and invent your own story, as Homoki seems to have done.) Bare wooden walls, along with the costumes — peasant boots and baggy trousers versus caftans and red fezzes — appear to place things in Mandate Palestine, and David seems to be a Palestinian taken in by Saul's Jewish settler family. An invented character, Saul's wife, abruptly dies, bringing on her husband's madness. The prologue, in which the Pythonisse invokes the ghost of Samuel to prophesy the king's doom, has been moved several scenes later, so that the dead wife can haunt her maddened husband.

Neal Davies's Saul is all bulging eyes and mad writhings, quick with a knife for the throat of those with whom he is talking peace. His singing, however, is dry and unattractive, and there is nothing kingly about his behavior. Far more pleasing voices come from Frédéric Caton, as Saul's Philistine opponent, Achis, and Kresimir Špicer, as Joabel, whose envy of David (in this staging enhanced by rejected lust) is the catalyst for intrigue and civil war. Dominique Visse sings the Pythonisse eerily, while dressed as Saul's wife. From the brochure, one learns that the chorus members are intended to represent different sorts of person — shepherds, warriors, captives, followers — but there is no telling which is which. They sound wonderful, but nothing in the staging clears up a bewildering mass of movement and the divorce of libretto from action. spacer


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