We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, April 19, 2013


Pascal Charbonneau, Ana Quintans  Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes
The ever-adventuresome Brooklyn Academy of Music is unfailingly adept at finding and presenting the new, the different and the surprising.  This week we have experienced a rare musical treasure--Marc-Antoine Charpentier's David et Jonathas, an import from the Aix-en-Provence Festival.  First performed in 1688 at a Jesuit college with libretto by Father François Bretonneau, this tragédie biblique was presented intermeshed with a spoken drama in Latin, Saul, by Father Étienne Chamillard. Each act of the opera was followed by one act from the play.  If the opera seems lacking in dramatic continuity, that would seem to be the reason.

The reknowned Les Arts Florissants can be counted on for superb musical values and the esteemed conductor William Christie truly has magic hands.  Every nuance of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's brilliant score was elicited by these remarkable musicians.  The basso continuo comprised Béatrice Martin on harpsichord and organ, Anne-Marie Lasla on viola da gamba, Jonathan Cable on doublebass,  Claude Wassmer on bassoon, and Brian Feehan on theorbo, an instrument that seems to arouse a great deal of curiosity from those unfamiliar with early music.

The singers rose to the very high level of the instrumentalists; high tenor Pascal Charbonneau made a modest and humble David; soprano Ana Quintans in a (short) pants role was totally convincing as Jonathas, the young prince so loved by David; bass Neal Davies employed his vocal and dramatic skills in his portrayal of the jealous paranoid Saül, king of the Israelites.  Achis, king of the Philistines, was finely performed by bass Frédéric Caton; tenor Krešimir Špicer was equally fine as Joabel, leader of the Philistine army.  But the most remarkable performance was given by high tenor Dominique Visse who used his face, body and gesture to portray the witch La Pythonisse.  The contribution of the chorus, led by Ms. Martin, was superb.

On the subject of the production itself, we disagree with the chorus of admirers.  We realize that the episodic nature of the opera made it difficult to establish dramatic continuity but director Andreas Homoki did nothing to make the action clear and the synopsis in the program wasn't much help.  Pantomimed scenes of Jonathas' childhood took awhile to add up and the crowd scenes were confusing.  A decision had been made to eroticize the relationship between David and Jonathas; it may very well have been hinted at in the bible but it seemed like pandering to contemporary taste.  It certainly made King Saül's jealousy that of a father toward his son and not envy of David's military success and popularity.

Some of the responsibility can be laid at the feet of the costume designer Gideon Davey who chose to dress some of the cast as depression-era civilians and others in middle-eastern garb.  Some wore fedoras, some caps and some fezzes.  This might have made sense if it served to distinguish the Philistines from the Israelites; but it did not.  We are all aware of the tribal nature of the contemporary hostility in that part of the world but we don't need 20th c. costumes to drive the point home.

The set design by Paul Zoller was likewise peculiar.  The action took place in what appeared to be a cedar closet lying on its side.  Simple wooden chairs were employed for sitting or for throwing about.  Walls and ceiling slid in or out as necessary.  Yes!  We get it!  The walls were closing in on the characters.  There was just too much distracting movement for our taste.  Not as much as the beast of a machine in The Ring Cycle at the Met but too much for our taste.  We found ourselves closing our eyes against this over-directed over-designed production and thinking how much better this would be as an oratorio.

© meche kroop

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