Sunday, April 6, 2008

DAVID ET JONATHAS - Accidental structures and the silent character they create.

I have often said the "David et Jonathas" is unlike any opera of its time. This is not simply because the music contains an emotional musical directness that predates verissmo, and a through-composed formal structure of which Gluck would have approved. It is also because dramatically the work has more in common with much more modern, even absurdist (and indeed I used “The Myth of Sisyphus” and other writings by Calmus to develope my initial concept) theater styles, than it does with other contemporary works of the baroque.

This is not the case because Charpentier and Bretonneau were interested in early modernist dramatic concepts. Rather, it is a product of the magic touch and infinite wisdom of history. The work was originally composed to be performed at the Jesuit school for which Charpentier worked, interspersed with a spoken tragedy titled "Saül", also by Père Bretonneau. Each act of this spoken Latin tragedy would be followed by an act of the sung French piece. While the spoken play propelled the dramatic action, the musical portion reflected on the emotional states of the principle characters. We perform "David et Jonathas" as a five act opera with prologue, but this is not how it was imagined. As such the work takes on a new dramatic affect that reflects a much more modern theatrical aesthetic.

There is almost no true "action" in this work. Rather there are four character portraits bookended by the prologue, which sets the tone of the work, and the final act which portrays the tragic consequences when these emotional states meet each other. Each of those four acts contains a large central scene for one of the characters (David, Jobel, Saül, and Jonathas), and it is indeed these monologues where time freezes that the work's most profound music lies. As such, the modern work "David et Jonathas", without the spoken action of "Saül", becomes a portrayal of humanity's core themes - love, fear, and faith.

Because so much of the work is devoted to monologues, a curious theatrical coup occurs. This is a biblical work, and the majority of these monologues are addressed to a "God" - some external force, deity, fate, or simply the vast universe. These external force is so strongly present in the text of the work, that it becomes an ever silent omnipresent principle character to which the fundamental questions are posed and from which no answer returns. Man is met with the implacable silence of the universe. In the words of Pascal:
“the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”.

That captures it perfectly for me.

The trajectory of this work's "meaning" is of great interest to me. Just deciding to produce it, without the spoken Latin text, creates a completely new work. Arises a theater piece with modernist/absurdist aesthetic of which Charpentier could not have conceived. Emerges an utterly crucial, but non-tangible eleventh character. And, the work takes on an additional central theme - that of man's struggle to reconcile logic with the seemingly arbitrary and, as such, unfairness of God's/the Universe's law.

And a few photos that capture some of these moments of man vs. silence (Jason Buckwalter as Saül, Brian Cummings as David, Matthew Walker as Jonathan:


Anonymous said...

viewing the photo you posted of david, jonathan, and saul encouraged me to post the question i've wondered since i first read of this exciting project: why did you cast a woman in the role of jonathan?

not that rebecca isn't talented, but doesn't it diminish one of the more interesting aspects of the work not to have two men performing what some might argue is the bible's most "famous" same-sex love story?

plus, it's not like there's not a lot of talented counter-tenors out there who could use the exposure ...

again, apologies in advance if this sounds like a dis against rebecca -- you break a leg, girlfriend!!!

(sorry to go anonymous -- im not a google blogger, and none of the other options works, either. i occasionally post as "whatever" on if anyone wants to stalk me!)

Timothy Nelson said...

Thanks for the message. It is a great question. This issue is one that I wrestled with quite a lot.
As you say, it is one of the most important aspects of this piece that makes it so unique. The verisimilitude of having a man in the role of Jonathas is important to me, and that is why I insisted on it in 2005.

But, alas, historical fact and the passing of time our not on our side.

The role was originally intended to be sung by an unchanged male voice. The voice changed much later in the 17th century (18-20 years old) and this would not have been an problem. Today, I can't have a 12 year old boy singing declarations of love to a 28 year old man for obvious reasons. William Christie has done concert performances with a boy soprano, but when staged it just is not a limb I will go out on, whether I like it or not it would lend a tone to the work that I do not intend.

You brought up the issue of counter-tenors. Well, this role is extremely high. It is not really in counter-tenor land without sounding pinched and unattractive (I believe it goes up to an A, and more sits in that tessitura for almost the whole show). There are perhaps one or two counter-tenors in the world that could sing this role. But than comes the problem of color. The high-counter tenor voice (I made a differentiation from the blended voice that some argue was the true haute-contre rather than the chest voiced tenor popular today in such roles) did not exist in French opera (actually didn't exist in almost any opera). The concept of a male singing in this range was not only foreign to the French, but repugnent. The only voices that could go so high in the 17th century would have been castrati, and the French loathed this voice type. The few counter-tenors out there that could sing this, a Michael Minaci for instance, do not have the purity sound with which the role was imagined. They have larger, more full voice, claiming to be closer to the castrati, and that makes them completely wrong for this role.

So there is the problem. On the one side the desire for verisimilitude, on the other the need to be true to the music as possible. Rebecca voice is clear and pure, similar to a boy soprano's voice (the type of voice the in the past has been the staple of early music). When she played the boy role of Ascanio in "La Didone", three review remarked on how convincing she was as a boy. That was proof enough for me. It isn't going to be the same as having a man in the role, I know that. But, given the options, I think it was the best available.

I hope you can come and enjoy the show!