Charpentier: David et Jonathas
Charpentier was one of the most frustrated operatic geniuses of the 17th century. Barred from composing full-length musical dramas by his ruthless contemporary, Lully, he contented himself by writing small-scale pastorales for Louis’s XIV’s cousin, Madame de Guise. When, after Lully’s death, he could at last compose a genuine tragédie-lyrique, he produced in Médée the greatest masterpiece of French opera before Rameau. David et Jonathas, composed for the Jesuits in 1688 as part of a vast polyglot entertainment including a play, is consistently beautiful but lacks the visceral punch of Médée and dramatically only really comes alive when engaging with David’s love for King Saul’s son, Jonathan.
In turning this slightly stiff Jesuit drama into a credible experience for opera audiences today, Andreas Homoki’s production updates the drama to, I presume, the Franco-Algerian conflict of the 1950s – the distinctly nugatory sleeve-notes tell us nothing of this background. The set looks like a giant orange box and changes very little throughout. There is a deal of unnecessary hyperactivity for the chorus in the first Act, but the emotional highpoints are beautifully captured. Above all, William Christie directs a fine ensemble performance with near-flawless instrumental playing and magnificent solo singing. The lead soloists are entirely convincing with Pascal Charbonneau, as David, negotiating his stratospheric tenor line superbly. Ana Quintans is an attractive Jonathas and Neal Davies a consummately neurotic Saul. Complementing these excellent soloists is a chorus which sings expertly while delivering sterling dramatic commitment in this compelling, if slightly edgy production.