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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In Context: David et Jonathas

Marc-Antoine Charpentier's David et Jonathas—conducted by William Christie and performed by Les Arts Florissants—runs at BAM until Sunday, April 21. Context is everything, so get even closer to the production with this curated selection of articles, videos, and original blog pieces related to the show. For those who've already seen it, help us keep the conversation going by telling us what you thought below.

On the Blog

“Gardens Fit for a Sun King: William Christie's Jardins de Thiré” (BAM Blog)
Hedges pruned by Lewis Carroll in consult with Dalí and Disney? Read more about what’s growing in Christie’s backyard.

5 Questions for David and Jonathas (Pascal Charbonneau and Ana Quintans) (BAM Blog)
The Canadian tenor and Portuguese soprano share what their lives are like off stage with the BAM blog.

Around the Web

“A Life in Music: William Christie” (The Guardian)
Christie has come a long way since his days of throwing together Bach performances in college.

Prologue to Scene 1, David et Jonathas (
Les Arts Florissants performs an excerpt from David et Jonathas.

Excerpt from David et Jonathas (
Claustrophobia ensues in this clip, featuring the production’s remarkable set in action.

From the Bible: 1 Samuel 18 (
After David killed Goliath, he made a life-long friend. David et Jonathas takes it from there.

Les Arts Florissant 30th Anniversary Concert (
Rameau, Purcell, Monteverdi, and others grace this celebratory program, conducted by William Christie.

William Christie Opens Gate to a World All His Own (The New York Times)
Read more about Christie's magnificent gardens.

Worthwhile Words

William Christie on discovering early music:

"[I felt] an intense sense of communication and bonding. It touched me and set something off that is very, very powerful. Listening to and playing Charpentier or Lully feels terribly important. And then when I get to Purcell or Bach or Handel or Rameau, I feel an extraordinary kinship, but that's something I share with a lot of people, especially in England. My mother directed the choir at our church and I heard Anglican 16th- and 17th-century music every Sunday morning. It was there from the very beginning for me."

Now Your Turn . . .

So what's your verdict? Once you've seen the show, tell us what you thought about the music or anything else that might be on your mind in the comments below.


  1. Charpentier is certainly not Lully. We tried to allow for the fact that this was not really an opera or a tragedie lyrique, but a "series of tableaux." Nevertheless, with no action, and with a very bland, unspecific libretto, and a score in which one 3/4 chorus with dotted rhythms was almost indistinguishable from the next, we were so disappointed that we left at intermission. (We ran into other friends who had done the same.)

    One musical bit that was remarkable was the accompaniment of the prophet Samuel by lower strings and continuo alone. Nice! (But why was he unseen? That was distinctly disappointing.)

    We also found the costuming, set, and staging most unhelpful. The production would have been well served by putting the name of each character in front of his/her lines on the supertitles (at least for a scene or two). David and Jonathan were easy to identify, but not the others, at least not at first.

    The inserted "flashback" pantomimes were more confusing than helpful. David was a Jew, not an Amalekite. So why does he enter as a boy in the first pantomime wearing one of the "Amalekite fezzes?" And there is no scriptural reference to Saul's wife, Jonathan's mother, and her death. We surmise this was inserted to give Saul grounds for going mad. Too much meddling.

    And why so much busy stage movement?

    Sorry to be so negative. We ordinarily are thrilled by Les Ats florissantes and by the things we come to at BAM. And this single experience will not change that. But you should hear some unvarnished opinion about this show.

    We are musicians and historians and teachers.

    1. I loved Davide et Jonathas. I'm not a musician, historian or teacher so I can't employ pedantry to back my opinion. The music didn't bore me, and the staging reminded me a bit of Robert Wilson which somehow worked with the baroque music. Anyway, an unscholarly recommendation ... definitely worth seeing!

  2. P.S. We note that Tomassini's rave review in the Times talks about the singing, the staging, the costumes, David and Jonathan's love, but says almost nothing about the comoposer Charpentier and his music or about Bretanneau the librettist.

    1. This is a bizarre remark, almost perversely contrarian. Is it really the business of a newspaper journalist to assess music or text from the 17th century?
      You speak as though your distaste for Charpentier were reflective of weaknesses inherent to him, and furthermore as if you had no means of discovering this ahead of time (taking the position of passive consumer, from which stance you can lambast BAM for disappointing you!). But Christie et al. have been promoting Charpentier continuously for decades, and indeed take their name from his work. They recorded his Medee twice. You should give him another shot, despite this piece disappointing you -- although, as you've probably inferred, I could hardly disagree more! Medee would be a good place to turn; so would his motets.

  3. I have attended many William Christie performances, both at BAM and Lincoln Center...even enjoyed Friday night's Le Jardin de Monsieur Rameau...but left David et Jonathas at intermission.

    The production and costumes were boring to the point of being insulting to the audience. The music and the supertitles were tedious. We heard far too much chorus. The scene with Saul's wife as numerous witches in kitchen aprons drove me out the door. The climate in the Gilman was warm and uncomfortable and the cool night and traffic sounds were a welcome change.

    I remember Christie's other productions as being magical. These memories made the flat, unemotional David et Jonathas just the more disappointing.

  4. If you respect an artist you hear him out, and I think Christie is a great artist. I feel amply rewarded for waiting out the strangeness of the staging and set and the unanticipated newness of the approach. It built slowly and patiently to great emotional power. I was thoroughly touched and moved, sometimes with no idea how or why. Art and magic. My congratulations to conductor and director and to the whole cast. And my reaction was obviously shared by the vast majority of the audience who stood and cheered and clapped and clapped and clapped and the performers bowed and bowed and bowed again, till they walked off and the curtain was dropped, though the excited passionate applause was continuing.

  5. Thanks, all, for the lively feedback thus far. One of the hot topics seems to be the quality of this particular Charpentier score, and we offer this as food for thought: David et Jonathas was originally intended to be performed in the middle of another work, Pierre Chamillart's spoken tragedy Saül, which has been lost. This was apparently in keeping with a Jesuit tradition of performing music and dance interludes between the acts of Latin biblical dramas. Interestingly, Saul would have presented the same story as David et Jonathas, albeit from a slightly different psychological vantage point (we're presuming that of Saul). Whether or not this should change the way we see and hear David et Jonathas is, of course, yet another exciting topic of debate.

  6. It is not that bad, that a reviewer in the Times does not speak about the composer and the librettist, but it is disappointing that this is not done in the program bill at the BAM, where nothing is written on when and how the opera was first composed and performed, on its reception afterwards, etc.

    As for the production, the music is surely very much enjoyable, provided you have a taste for French baroque music. The performances of orchestra, choir, and singers are great.

    What does not work at all is the staging. There is nothing wrong in using a modern setting, if it is well found and especially if it does not disturb the music. This is unfortunately not the case here. Apparently, the director wanted to make the play closer to a contemporary audience by presenting the plot as a development of psychological dynamics easily fitting into a Freudian scheme. As the reviewer of the Times correctly pointed out, the flashbacks of the family scenes with Saul as the father, the two small boys as the natural and the adopted sons, and especially with the prematurely deceased wife, recreate a family pattern which should help explain the strained relationship between Saul and David. That is also why the Witch asked by Saul about his fate appears as a multiplication of Saul's wife. The whole construction implies that Saul is somehow guilty toward his wife (or wives, who knows?)and this guilt is a part of his neurotic persona, highlighted by the way he acts, or better over-acts. As central to the plot as Saul is, the way the king is portrayed is particularly disruptive, reducing the drama to a very bourgeois story of a sick household, where tension dominates because of the neurosis which tarnishes the head of the family. The rest of the environment is also the fruit of a drastic reduction: from the dignified, warlike, solemn entourage evoked by the music, we find ourselves plunged in a kibbutzlike atmosphere, perhaps in the Forties/ Fifties. Scenes of brotherhood, companionship, peaceful enjoyment alternate with moments of bloodthirsty animosity, very much in a kind of guerrilla style.

    The moving walls, which at times threat to smash the characters, and create a claustrophobic effect, are a beautiful feat and very well realized, but it does not rescue the ugliness of the pine wood barrack.
    The confusion of the costumes, as someone already lamented, is said to be intentional and aimed at highlighting the absurdity of war. Every war is a war of men against men, and the fact that the ones wear a fez, while the others do not, should be an irrelevant detail. Alas, the path to hell is often paved with best intentions. As a matter of fact this blurring of the lines between the two peoples involved in the action is such that it is all but impossible to understand what is happening, since the onlooker is never able to distinguish one group from the other.

    Far from being a celebration of peace and tolerance, which means acceptance of diversity in its many possible forms, the attitude shown by the director only confirms our inability to approach a text of another culture (in this case of our past) without mirroring in it the pettiness of our own circumstances. We want to see our psychological syndromes celebrated on the stage, and if we repeat this operation often enough, we can remain assured that these are not only our syndromes, but those of all people at all times.
    Poor Charpentier and poor librettist (and poor onlookers).


  7. First, score and performances were beautiful all around. The evening received huge applause because of the musical achievement. Musically, William Christie never gets it wrong.
    But as for the production, I must agree with Muffu. The only reason to take a work out of its original setting is if you can use a different setting to illuminate the heart of the work. BAM's current production of Julius Caesar does exactly that: It made this well-worn play new again, and I felt as if I were seeing if for the first time.
    But this production of David took an already somewhat confusing libretto and made it much, much more confusing. Nothing at all was illuminated, a ridiculous, unnecessary back story (David and Jonathan as childhood friends and lovers) was added, and we ended up with awkward moments such as Saul singing that he did not want to Jonathan to see him die, when Jonathan (his ghost, actually) had already left the stage.


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