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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars stunning!, 3 July 2013
schumann_bg - See all my reviews
This review is from: David & Jonathas [DVD] [2013] [NTSC] (DVD)
This disc of Charpentier's David et Jonathas is a revelation, I think, as someone who doesn't really know about Baroque opera ... it was chance that led me to it, but I find it a totally life-enhancing experience, full of the most beautiful music and interest in terms of meaning. It manages to suggest a lot by its marvellous ambiguities, both in the staging and characters. The production, with its boxed wooden spaces, suggests a psychological opening or confining to mirror the action, while its warm wood tones and minimal furnishings also allow a feeling of vagueness as to whose camp we are sometimes in, the Israelites or the Philistines, which is very effective. It puts a degree of abstraction into the musings on war and victory that underpin many of the lively choruses, with the result that their messages seem more metaphorical. This would certainly bear out the work's origin as part of a youth production on the life of Saul for a Jesuit school. There is a feeling of nobility about many of the sentiments, contrasted with two characters who are brought down by failings in their own nature, namely Saul and Joabel. The clarity of this is very effective.

But what I love most of all, apart from the ravishing singing of the two leads, is the exploration of romantic love in what is in effect the first gay opera. Not only is it gay - and the two characters do kiss on the lips, with Joabel also seeming to have a physical passion for David - but the casting of a soprano in the role of Jonathas makes it a trouser role with a difference. Where this role often unwittingly gives a lesbian overtone, as in Der Rosenkavalier, here it gives a heterosexual one, as Jonathas is simultaneously a boy and girl. We somehow see the character in a kind of double take, which is unusually compelling. The simplicity of the setting allows this duality to be carried through brilliantly. Yet for all that it does not feel at all abstract - this is a real feeling, never questioned for its gayness per se, that moves us immensely and has as strong a feeling of tragedy as any opera, I would say. But of course it does raise interesting questions about how the subject was seen at the time; certainly an aspect of homoerotic love must have been more acceptable that one might assume. As if that's not daring enough, there is the added aspect of Jonathas' youth, singing in a soprano voice and running around in short trousers. One is reminded of how young Romeo and Juliet actually were - about fourteen, I think - and this aspect is likely to be more disturbing to a modern audience, or would be if it wasn't displaced in its realisation. Pascal Charbonneau and Ana Quintans are simply amazing, heartbreaking in their projection and vocal beauty. And the music itself is a complete joy, with dancing rhythms, buoyant choral writing, and huge pathos in the final two acts. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants bring off something miraculous, creating the perfect lighting in which to see every reflection in this shot silk of a score ... it's absolutely unmissable!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful rare French Baroque, 15 April 2013
Keris Nine - See all my reviews
This review is from: David & Jonathas [DVD] [2013] [NTSC] (DVD)
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 with Lully and his successor Rameau being favoured over Charpentier, Campra and the underrated Gossec. 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 really is 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, 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. 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 by adding flashback scenes during what would have been musical ballet sequences to fill out the background of the characters as well as the historical conflicts that have shaped them.

The Aix production also notionally sets this staging of the opera during the Palestinian Civil War and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. 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, 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. The impression given is that it's simply trying to make the staging visually more interesting and dramatic than it might otherwise be. 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.

The production sparks into life during those magnificent choral arrangements celebrating David's successes in battle, and there are many of those. Combined with 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) - this is simply ravishingly beautiful music. 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. The acoustics of the boxed stage probably don't help here either.

Elsewhere the singing and dramatic performances were excellent, even if the true quality of Ana Quintans singing only really comes through in the very moving final act death scene of Jonathas. Neal Davies sings Saul with force and passion, but the stage direction and imagery used to convey his descent into paranoia suspicion and grief isn't always convincing. David et Jonathas is clearly an extremely difficult work to adapt dramatically to the modern stage, but this is a welcome DVD release for a production that gives due musical and dramatic consideration to a true rarity from a neglected composer.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth hearing & seeing, 8 July 2014
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This review is from: David & Jonathas [DVD] [2013] [NTSC] (DVD)
This opera is not well known, but deserves to be much better known than it is.
In telling the story of David & Jonathan at least this production, if not Charpentier himself, is quite clear that they were lovers. Because Jonathan is sung here by a woman (the two main roles would probably originally have been sung by boy sopranos, but that would be difficult for all sorts of reasons these days) you sometimes have to remind yourself that this means a gay relationship, which the main faith organisations are clear is forbidden in the Bible.
The sets are minimalist but work fine, the dress I suppose sort of early 20th century European peasant style, but again this is OK in the context of this production. The music is lovely and the whole thing extremely well conducted by William Christie, justly regarded as an expert in this field.
See it for you yourself.
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David & Jonathas [DVD] [2013] [NTSC]
David & Jonathas [DVD] [2013] [NTSC] by Stéphane Metge (DVD - 2013)
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