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Charpentier David et Jonathas
The Barbican, London. March 29, 2004

Paul Agnew - David, Jael Azzaretti - Jonathas, Laurent Naouri - Saul, Andrew Foster- Williams - Achis, Daniel Auchincloss - The Witch
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Choir of the Enlightenment/ Emmanuelle Haïm

One of my most vivid memories during a long lifetime of opera reviewing (e.g. UK premiere of Simone Boccenegra 1948) was seeing David et Jonathas staged brilliantly during a City of London Festival some years ago - students of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama directed by William Christie (information re venue and dates would be appreciated).

I went to The Barbican hoping that this concert performance would not be a disappointment, and was gripped again from beginning to end. It is an extraordinary work to a searching libretto which probes conflicting emotions of 'torn allegiances, jealousy and suspicion and love between men' and ends with David crowned King but deeply depressed at his moment of glory. (Originally it was given in tandem with a Latin spoken tragedy Saul, its five acts sandwiched between Charpentier's; that would indeed have made a long evening!)

In scale David et Jonathas (1688) is far more ambitious than Dido and Aneas (1689) - both were written for schools - and Charpentier's two surviving operas (the other is Médée) certainly do not deserve their relative neglect until very recently.

Under Emmanuelle Haïm's direction everything was vivid and the singing was generally of the highest standard, dominated by Paul Agnew and Laurent Naouri. Many members of the choir stepped forward to take solos, and all of them fully accomplished professionals. My only serious reservation was about the casting of the very feminine Jael Azzaretti as Jonathas - sweet singing, but never suggesting masculinity or the homoerotic aspect of the Jesuit priest Bretonnau's libretto. (My memory is that in Christie's staged production both best friends were male, but I cannot remember whether Jonathan was taken by another tenor or by a counter-tenor?) From row K of the stalls the crucial surtitles were visible - a little further away I should not have been able to read them (the same system makes for difficulty at Holland Park Opera).

It was not made clear at the Barbican how much the delectable orchestration owed to Haïm or to her teacher William Christie, who has recorded it? The harmony and contrapuntal textures are elaborate and contribute to the moving effect of many of the scenes. In this performance each orchestral group had opportunities to shine; two baroque flutes, several recorders, oboes and bassoon, two theorboes (so often those are seen but little heard!), and strings weighted towards the lower violas (6) and cello/gamba/bass violins. That provided a telling dark accompaniment for the more emotional moments. It would be good to know how 'authentic' was this rich instrumentation, which brought to mind the early extravagances of Raymond Leppard in Monteverdi, later frowned upon by the cognoscenti.

William Christie's CDs (Harmonia Mundi, Musique d'abord 1901289.90) have confirmed my high regard for this unique and marvellous opera. The orchestral line-up in the lavish booklet (astonishing for a bargain label) suggest that the edition used by Emmanuelle Haïm was probably the same as Christie's in 1988.

The texts are given in ideal form; in French from a facsimile of the original publication with parallel translations into English and German. Jean Duron's notes put the position of this opera clearly. " - it is an opera and by no means an oratorio - - to cut short any possible dispute, Marc-Antoine Charpentier had composed an oratorio on the same subject in 1681-82, Mors Saulis et Jonathas (H.403)."

There is more to learn about the five act Latin spoken play Saul which was originally given sandwiched between Charpentier's five acts. These are two contrasting aspects of the same drama, each reacting on the other, investing one another with greater power and increaingly refining the psychological character of the protagonists.

I am left with a strong feeling that we should see the whole five hour work produced for revaluation (it is not so long since Berlioz's Les Troyens was thought too long for a single evening.) How about one of our colleges taking up the challenge first, say the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (which previously tacklet the opera with William Christie to resounding success) or Trinity College of Music, which has a strong Early Music Department and an impressive record of staging plays?

The recording is fine, with marked differences from the recent live performance. Christie sounds to me lighter and more vivacious in his approach; Haïm went for greater intensity, appropriate probably for getting across the emotion of this drama to a general audience in a large auditorium. There arre several notable voices, familiar in the French baroque discography; the amazing, idiosyncratic haut-contre of Dominique Visse (The Witch), another, Gerard Lesne as David and the admired tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt as the 'villain' Joabel. Jonathan is taken again by a soprano, Monique Zanetti, but she has an eager, boyish voice more convincing than was Jael Azzaretti at The Barbican.

The Barbican performance; for and against:

- - Marc-Antoine Charpentier's first full-length opera - - is, however, a masterpiece, a deeply moving study of torn allegiances, of jealousy and suspicion - - Charpentier's liking for building large-scale forms - remarkable for its time - gives the work an irresistible impetus. He orchestrates wonderfully - - Music and text are perfectly aligned, melodically and harmonically, so that listening to his most moving moments is a sort of delicious agony - - it is sad that we do not see his work staged in this country - - Stephen Pettitt in Evening Standard

- - Strip away the battles and dances and choral pomp from this retelling of the Biblical story of Jonathan and David, and what you have is a very modern-seeming homo-erotic love triangle. David's love for Jonathan, remember, "passed the love of women", and though we're told that Jonathan's father King Saul is jealous of David's military prowess, it's pretty clear a very different sort of jealousy is involved - - he gave Jonathan and David a parting duet as heart-breakingly intense as anything in French Baroque opera. - - As for Saul, he emerges as a figure ripe for the psychiatrist's consulting room, a man wrecked by paranoid suspicion and thwarted love. - - Charpentier's opera is a marvel of formal cunning, psychological insight, and lavish musical inventiveness.
Ivan Hewett in The Daily Telegraph

If good intentions were all, Charpentier's David et Jonathas would be a masterpiece - - it attempts to make the biblical story exciting - - and it contains about 20 minutes of wonderful music. But there's still another two hours besides - - dramatic momentum is in short supply, and it's hard to imagine this "sacred opera" on stage.
Erica Jeal in The Guardian


© Peter Grahame Woolf