Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

David et Jonathas: What were they smoking?

American Opera Theater is the grandiloquent name of a Washington, D.C.-based semi-professional (but, rather, post-student) company that has just brought its production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's 1688 work David et Jonathas to the magnificent (but, for something like this, far too large) opera house of BAM to make the sort of New York debut that makes the opera lover want to skip a few seasons and catch them in five or six years when they've got their priorities on straight.

Musically, however, it was a memorable occasion.

Tim Nelson, the 28-year-old master(in his own) mind who runs the company, seems to have left other details in incompetent hands while he went his own artistic way. Both halves of the show, in front and behind the footlights, made one doubt the wisdom of this decision.

Surtitles, for instance. I've often deplored surtitles, but for a work whose story is unfamiliar (and is confusing in any case, since the music was intended for performance between great chunks of spoken text that no longer exist and might have cleared a few things up about the story - next time you attend Follies, say, try to imagine what the story is from the songs by themselves) surtitles are probably the best way to go. The A.O.T. thought them too expensive. Okay, the next choice would be a clear synopsis, given out well before the curtain - but no, we arrived to learn (after an interminable wait for the ONE person giving out will-call tickets) that there were no programs or synopses available. (They turned up at intermission, but there was no guarantee of that.) Another notion would be to costume the players appropriately, so at least we knew who they were. It wasn't until David was mortally wounded in Act IV (or was it Act V) that I realized he was actually Jonathas, and that David was the other guy. Hey, backstage: one of these boys is a prince, the other a shepherd - SOME visual differentiation is possible.

And I've read the Book of Samuel, and I fail to see ANY homoerotic resonance in this story whatsoever. The highly heterosexed David's love for Jonathan (also married with children) is not Young Boys of Old Canaan down at the Adonis on "cut" night; when David says he found Jonathan's love "surpassing that of women," he doesn't mean the sex was hotter, he means male bonding was a more intense thrill for him than getting off with his harem and dozens of wives (including Jonathan's sister).

Also: I realize this is a fairly youthful work, but there was nothing in the score that suggested Charpentier would someday produce "Depuis le Jour" in Louise a mere 200 years later.

But I stayed. I stayed and, once Saul had rubbed blood on his (not uninteresting) chest -- better developed than his voice, and flatter too -- and the buxom girls playing Hebrew warriors (or were they Philistines?) had waved flags around in a tradition borrowed from the Met's worst impulses, TO EVERYONE'S SURRPISE the music was just lovely. Several of the singers (notably David - I mean Jonathan - well the one who was sung by boyish but female Rebecca Duren - and also a blonde in the chorus, I think Emily Noël) were quite delicious upon the ear, and if one closed one's eyes (as was often necessitated by glaring lights and fulsome smoke), two and a half hours of blissful Charpentier fell happily upon the senses and one could almost believe it was Les Arts Florissants on a (virtual) off night.

I mean it was good; it was an enjoyable concert. What the story was about (not much of the Book of Samuel) and what the text was about and most of all what the staging was about and what the company producers thought they were doing were never clear, amateurish at the most charitable estimation, but it was a most enjoyable concert, a lovely evening of music from the golden era of Louis le Grand.

I wish Tim Nelson's company well and respectfully suggest they begin by getting rid of Tim Nelson.


Anonymous said...

Putting aside, for a moment, musical criticism, perhaps AOT wasn't entirely responsible for the lack of programs or surtitles. Could it be possible that BAM is itself not the most organized New York arts institution?

As for the love between the two title characters, you are quite remiss in your reading of the story. Whether or not D and J had an intimate relationship is (and has been for some time!) a subject of debate among biblical scholars. Perhaps you take the side of those who discount their amorous relationship, but you expose great ignorance by dismissing the remarkable amount of scholarship devoted to these historical characters.

It's also too bad you weren't able to follow a story that is, frankly, quite simple. Judged against those sitting around me (Sat. perf.), you would be among a small minority that couldn't connect the dots between the three central characters.

There was much to criticize in this flawed production, and you are right that the singing was pretty uneven. I could go on about other musical problems (I, too, was disappointed in a lot that I heard), but this is becoming more of a reactionary rant than comment! It's just that the performers shouldn't be held accountable to snippy bloggers who can't put 2 and 2 together and come up with 4.

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