Marc-Antoine Charpentier - David et Jonathas

Opéra Comique, Paris, Friday January 18 2013

Conductor: William Christie. Production: Andreas Homoki. Sets: Paul Zoller. Costumes: Gideon Davey. Lighting: Franck Evin. David: Pascal Charbonneau. Jonathas: Ana Quintans. Saül: Arnaud Richard. Joabel: Krešimir Špicer. Achis: Frédéric Caton. La Pythonisse: Dominique Visse. L'Ombre de Samuel, premier guerrier: Pierre Bessière. Les Arts Florissants.

After all they put up with, you might think operagoers would, as well as having cast-iron buttocks, thanks to Wagner, be hard-boiled all round. Yet in fact we’re quite sensitive: little contretemps of all kinds can make us less receptive. On Friday evening, not only was there unusually heavy snow in Paris (any snow in Paris is unusual), making me worry about taking off for New York the next day. But also, my two fellow-subscribers called in sick at the last minute, leaving me alone with two spare tickets in my balcony seat. These simple things may explain why, though this well-travelled production (which will travel on to Brooklyn in April this year) has had good reviews for both staging and singing, I was less than 100% in agreement and so in a minority of one.

Andreas Homoki’s production sets the “Tragédie biblique” some time in the middle of the last century. Saul and his people wear hats, waistcoats, sandals and, the women, drab dresses and stockings; the Philistines wear fezzes, djellabahs and, the women, drab veils. The set is initially a large shoe-box stage within the stage (like the Macbeths’ living room in Cherniakov’s production), but we soon discover that the walls move in and out, creating smaller or larger or even multiple pinewood spaces set with simple, wooden tables and chairs. The many scene changes this ingenious arrangement allows include flash-backs (replacing ballet numbers, I guessed) to Saul’s younger days, with his wife in a black and yellow dress and white apron, with a neat black bun, schoolboy Jonathas in Harry potter (or Billy Bunter) shorts and specs and David in djellabah and fez, welcomed by the wife, treated with contempt by Saul.

So the concept is sound: two similar, equally hard-up communities who might do better helping each other out, nevertheless locked in suffocating religious conflict, symbolised by the menacingly contracting space – rarely do sets participate so actively in the drama. The principles put in an acting tour de force as David sinks finally into grief and Saul into madness, and the staging is especially effective in the central, supernatural section (originally the prologue) where Saul visits the pythoness to summon up the ghost of Samuel and learn God has forsaken him: a nightmarish, Magritte-like vision of identically-dressed clones of Saul’s wife, one of them Dominique Visse (vocally not at his best), across three spaces.

But once these elements were established, it seemed to me, in my less receptive state, that the scene changes and flash-backs, at odds with the divisions in the score, made the story hard to read; that the gadgetry and symbolism of sliding walls and changing spaces became predictable and eventually tedious; that the "gay" potential of the storyline, thankfully not overstressed (as France fretfully debates "marriage for all"), was undermined by having a woman sing Jonathas - the eventual full kiss lacked piquancy; that the religious conflict, once evoked, was handled a bit simplistically; and that though the principles acted up a storm, the chorus (singing magnificently as usual) were wooden and unconvincing and some of the secondary characters corny.

And to my ear (to my ear only, I mean, as the critics don’t bear me out), there was a mis-match between the degree of musical perfection, of absolute mastery leading to absolute fluency, reached by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in the service of Charpentier’s magnificent score, and the young soloists on stage, who sounded (to my ear only, as the critics don’t bear me out and I bow, of course, to Christie’s expertise in choosing them), unripe, overstretched and, cruelly exposed by the megaphone effect of the boxy sets, raw.


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