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David ♥ Jonathas

Brian Cummings (David), David et Jonathas, American Opera Theater
(workshop version, 2005)

American Opera Theater:
Messiah | Ground | Acis and Galatea | La Didone
Judging by the preview article of this weekend's production by American Opera Theater, Artistic Director Timothy Nelson has taken a page from Sergei Diaghilev's lesson book. Concerning his gay interpretation of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's David et Jonathas, Nelson admits that the relationship of the future King of Israel with Jonathan, the son of his doomed predecessor, Saul, is not construed as homosexual in the Bible. He also admits that Charpentier did not intend his intermède scenes to be interpreted that way in 1688, when they were performed between the acts of a Latin play about Saul at a Jesuit school (the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris). None of that should prevent Nelson from recasting the story that way in his production, of course, and the shock of the choice was perhaps an attempt to attract notoriety (although it must be said that a homosexual understanding of the relationship is hardly new).

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Charpentier, David et Jonathas, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie
Charpentier's music is not exactly unknown, having been recorded in an excellent (but now difficult to locate) set by Les Arts Florissants and toured in concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment a few years ago. Still, the staging of this unusual and gorgeous work (libretto by François Bretonneau) is a major achievement for Nelson and his young company. In a city where operatic taste is so damnably conservative, American Opera Theater is often like a breath of fresh air, if only because the group tends to produce works off the well-trodden Top 20 path that makes up so much of American operatic life. This is a work that is most welcome in a live performance, especially in one that was in many ways musically pleasing.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, 'David' Slays a Grand Ambition (Washington Post, May 5)

Karren L. Alenier, The Angelic Voices of David and Jonathas (The Dressing, May 3)

Rebecca J. Ritzel, A Provocative Twist on the Bible and the Baroque (Washington Post, May 2)

Rebecca Duren, For the Record (A Soprano on Her Feet, May 3)
The Ignoti Dei Orchestra, basically a pick-up group of HIP specialists with a few regulars, played with poise and stylistic sensitivity. Particularly fine sounds came from wind players Kathryn Montoya (doubling on oboe and various recorders) and Anna Marsh (bassoon), as well as paired violin principals Dana Maiben and Daniel Boothe. Local early music veteran Tina Chancey headed up the low string section, and Kris Kwapis Ingles added some clarion sounds on trumpet. As happened during AOT's recent production of Messiah, Nelson conducted the performance. While he was able to resolve a couple of rhythmic misalignments among the ensemble, it was not clear what benefit Nelson's presence had in the pit over, say, co-music director Adam Pearl leading from the keyboard.

2 Kings 1: 17-27

And David made this kind of lamentation over Saul, and over Jonathan his son. And he said: Consider, O Israel, for them that are dead, wounded on thy high places. The illustrious of Israel are slain upon thy mountains: how are the valiant fallen? Tell it not in Geth, publish it not in the streets of Ascalon: lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph. Ye mountains of Gelboe, let neither dew, nor rain come upon you, neither be they fields of firstfruits: for there was cast away the shield of the valiant, the shield of Saul as though he had not been anointed with oil. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the valiant, the arrow of Jonathan never turned back, and the sword of Saul did not return empty. Saul and Jonathan, lovely, and comely in their life, even in death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions. Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with scarlet in delights, who gave ornaments of gold for your attire. How are the valiant fallen in battle? Jonathan slain in the high places? I grieve for thee, my brother Jonathan: exceeding beautiful, and amiable to me above the love of women. As the mother loveth her only son, so did I love thee. How are the valiant fallen, and the weapons of war perished?
The singing was a mixed bag, with many of the smaller voices too often covered by the orchestra. Part of this may have something to do with the arrangement of Georgetown's Gonda Theater, and the balance was better when we sat toward the back of the seating than at the front, near the pit. Anyone who remembers Rebecca Duren's astounding turn as Ascanio in La Didone will not be surprised to hear that she was a convincingly boyish Jonathas, again channeling a boy soprano sound. Emily Noel and Bonnie McNaughton (Creusa/Anna and Dido, respectively, in La Didone) were impressive as major parts of the Petit Chœur. Kristen Dubenion-Smith had to bark and growl a bit as La Pythonisse (the Witch of Endor), but it suited the character just fine.

As for the production, much more confusing than the homosexual love relationship of the title characters was the time setting. The Biblical backdrop, of course, is a war in the Middle East, between the ancient Israelites and the Philistines. Saul is trying to destroy the Philistines, and David helps him at first. As Saul becomes jealous of David's victories, David takes refuge with the Philistines for a time and puts together alliances on both sides. Nelson's production makes reference to modern political struggles in the Middle East, but not in any coherent way. The chorus is clothed in black cloaks and hoods -- burqas? the infamous garb of the Abu-Ghraib prisoners? -- and spends most of the performance behind a fence of posts and concertina wire. Are the two sides Iraq and the United States? Israel and the Palestinian Authority? It makes more of a mess of the story than helping to illuminate it.

American Opera Theater will take its production of David et Jonathas to the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend (May 9 and 10, 7:30 pm).

Vivian Schweitzer, Modernizing a Baroque French Opera (New York Times, May 13)
See also David et Jonathas: What were they smoking? (Cafeteria Rusticana, May 11) and Timothy Nelson's reaction to the Washington reviews -- especially the (edited) comment by Henry Holland.

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