Cher Public

Boys to men

You have only until Sunday to catch the most heart-breaking moments seen on New York City operatic stages this season when the title characters of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas—which opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday night—bid one another a final farewell. Frantically embracing the crumpled body of his dying friend, a destroyed David (played with searing intensity by Pascal Charbonneau) laments the tragic circumstances that have cost him everything he loves while a crowd proclaims him as their victorious new king in one of opera’s most wrenchingly unhappy “happy endings.”  

This latest visit by the acclaimed Les Arts Florissants brings Charpentier’s 1688 tragédie biblique in a devastating production from last year’s Aix-en-Provence Festival by German director Andreas Homoki who in his US debut has devised a cinematic treatment of the sometimes static work crosscutting brief mimed scenes—many in flashback—which help explain the fraught relationship of David and Jonathas, particularly the increasingly malign disapproval of Jonathas’s father Saül.

Homoki (who appeared for a bow after Wednesday’s opening) eschews nearly all of the Biblical implications of this famous story from the book of Samuel where Israel’s King Saul takes in the shepherd David after his victory over the giant Goliath but soon grows increasingly paranoid over the boy’s popularity with the people of his kingdom and incensed by his intense friendship with his son Jonathan.

He instead places the story in an insular community in unnamed place and time—vaguely Middle-Eastern in the mid-20th century—where warring factions threaten to divide the life-long friends, particularly as the bloodlust of Joabel abets Saul’s frantic delusions.

Many see David and Jonathan as the most overt same-sex relationship in the Bible, particularly in passages describing Jonathan’s feelings for David:

Now it came about when he had finished speaking to Saul that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself. Saul took him that day and did not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, including his sword and his bow and his belt.

and David’s grief at the death of Jonathan:

How have the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan is slain on your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; you have been very pleasant to me. Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women. How have the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

In setting Père François Bretonneau’s libretto, Charpentier, who never married, often portrays the pair as passionate star-crossed lovers particularly in the aching duet that begins Act IV:

J: You flee from me!

D: You always follow me!

J: May I not share my grief with you?

D: See into what danger my misfortune leads you: Let us forget one another.

J: Cruel one!

D: You must be cruel too.

J: Can you be?

D: In spite of ourselves Heaven parts us.

J: Everything is being prepared against you alone.

D & J: Ah, what delights sweet peace had! Ah, was it ever necessary to rob us of the bliss of so sweet a peace?


D & J: I shall go; I shall seek to save the one I love.

J: Stay.

D: I cannot.

J: Alas!

D: Would you now wish to add to my torment with your tears?

At which point before David exits, Homoki has Jonathas give him a long kiss on the lips which appears to unsettle David. It’s a kiss which David is only able to reciprocate as he presses his lips to those of Jonathas now dying in his arms.

J: Despite the harshness of my fate, at least I can still tell you that I love you.

D: Heaven! Heaven! He is dead! Has so faithful and so tender a love ever had so unhappy a fate? My solicitude has not been able to protect the dearest object in my desires from a cruel death. Only Heaven could have forged such fair bonds: Alas, can Heaven take him back without me?

I recall someone once posting on another online opera forum his fervent desire to see this work staged as it would surely prove a homoerotic feast. Unfortunately that’s not really possible in quite the manner he hoped for as Jonathas is written for a soprano (sung by a boy in 1688), so Homoki’s shy, bespectacled youth was played en travesti by the fine Portuguese singer Ana Quintans whose subdued affection finally burst into a desperate fervor in that painful duet and who was particularly affecting in her stunning monologue (in a variation of the da capo form, rare for French vocal music of this time) which immediately followed that furtive kiss.

The ingenious set by Paul Zoller of looming walls of blond wood was particularly eloquent during this monologue. As Jonathas bewails his fate unable to prevent the catastrophe that will surely befall him and his friend, those walls close in on him until he can barely prevent them from crushing him. Throughout the performance the walls and ceiling expand and contract to mirror the often suffocating oppressiveness of the riven community—the only other props, a few tables and many chairs of matching wood.

If the singing rarely attained the usual fine distinction of a Les Arts Florissants performance, it may be due to the almost unbearably intense personenregie of Homoki whose characters are nearly always in extremis. Bass Neal Davies, usually such a cool, contained performer, as Saül raged frighteningly against the imagined usurpation plotting of David until he became reduced to a quivering, tortured monster, finally put out of his misery when David stabbed him in self-defense.

Having burst onto the scene over ten years ago as Ulisse in the ravishing LAF production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ullise in Patria, Croatian tenor Kresimir Spicer returned as the implacable Joabel whose thirst for blood drives him to murder Jonathas, an act normally kept off-stage but which Homoki instead presented with shocking vividness. Basses Frédéric Caton as Achis and Pierre Bessière as a gravely sepulchral Samuel were also splendid.

The raising of the ghost of Samuel by the Witch of Endor (La Pythonisse) was the least felicitous directorial choice by Homoki. Into his imagined scenario of the past, the director had invented the figure of Saül’s wife/Jonathas’s mother who dies onstage during one of the mimed sequences. During the opera’s prologue which Homoki provocatively placed instead after Act III, Saül comes to the Witch to help him divine the future.

During that sequence 15 or so women including La Pythonisse appear identically garbed and coiffed as Saül’s wife. Despite its fevered theatricality, this connection of the dead wife to the Witch escaped me, yet it provided a smashing opportunity for the indelible Dominique Visse to appear yet again in drag, his vividly piercing countertenor inexorably conjured the dead king whose dire prophecy of doom brought the work’s first half to its dark conclusion.

Paradoxically, the David of Charbonneau stood out as the evening’s finest, most moving achievement while also it also proved the most musically problematic. The young Québécois tenor, whom I’ve heard as an ardent Acis in Handel’s pastoral tragedy and as a most lyrical Toby in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, lacks the ideal haute-contre (high tenor) range for Charpentier, so on numerous occasions he struggled mightily with the high tessitura.

This role had previously been sung by countertenors such as Paul Esswood and Gérard Lesne but has more often recently been taken by haute-contres like Paul Agnew, Mark Padmore and Anders J. Dahlin. Yet Charbonneau’s singing and acting were so passionate, so committed that the musical failings paled in light of his devastating portrayal of the conflicted, reluctant hero.

Given how essential its performances in NYC have become over the past 26 years, it’s perhaps unnecessary to observe that Les Arts Florissants under its musical director William Christie was once again sublime. Although other fine orchestras now perform French operas from the late 17th and early to mid-18th centuries, LAF remains the ne plus ultra—vividly dramatic while remaining sumptuously beautiful, particularly in the ravishing prelude to Act IV.

Of particular note on Wednesday evening was the spectacular continuo team led by the supreme Béatrice Martin, clearly today’s finest exemplar of continuo harpsichord playing and also the production’s inspired chef du chant. The chorus of LAF remains unmatched performing with a radiant glow and vigorous precision I’ve never heard approached by any other group. The considerable solo singing required of chorus members in David et Jonathas was finely done, particularly by Élodie Fonnard and Reinoud van Mechelen, veterans of the 2011 Jardins des Voix.

Given the enormous expense of importing the large forces necessary for a fully staged baroque opera, who knows when the next production by Les Arts Florissants will arrive at BAM? Next year’s LAF opera, Rameau’s irresistible Platée, is being performed only in concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall—so anyone interested in seeing opera performed at the highest musical and dramatic level should endeavor to attend one of the remaining performances of this most powerful and poignant piece—with an audience-friendly running time of just over two-and-a-half hours, compared to Atys’s four.

For those who unable to make it to NYC this weekend where Homoki’s vision of David et Jonathas concludes its run (after performances in Aix, Edinburgh and Paris) and for those who will want to relive this superb realization, an indispensible DVD drawn from the Aix performances will be released at the end of this month.

Libretto excerpts: English translation by Derek Yeld from the libretto accompanying the Harmonia Mundi recording.

  • Feldmarschallin

    Boys to Men was the name of a famous escort agency in San Francisco run by David. This of course was in the 90’s and I wonder what ever happened to the agency and to David.

    • That was not the allusion I intended to make with that headline.

  • Gualtier M

    I saw this last night too. I agree with DeCaffarelli’s review in general except for a few points and added observations.

    There was some extra homoerotic tones -- Joabel also was sexually attracted to David. In their first scene Kresimir Spicer’s Joabel made a sexual advance on Pascal Charbonneau’s David which David spurned with dismay. That motivated Joabel to turn on him. Also the chorus sings about David’s immense personal charm and how even his male enemies fall under his spell -- he conquers more with his looks and charm than with his sword. The librettist Père Bretonneau was likely not the marrying kind as they used to say in my long ago youth.

    Also, Saul was portrayed as not just neurotic but possibly mentally ill with a paranoid personality disorder and persecution complex. Neal Davies was really dramatically involving -- Saul emerged as the most interesting character in the piece. The scene with the Pythonesse was staged as a full-out psychotic hallucination all in Saul’s disordered mind. Saul was still emotionally attached to his dead wife and saw her ghost everywhere -- including the Pythonesse so memorably sung by Dominique Visse (who now is a character tenor -- not really a countertenor though he had some haut-contre excursions into high falsetto). I thought that whole scene (originally the prologue to the opera but moved to the end of the first half before the intermission) was brilliant.

    Homoki also brings down the curtain even while the singers are singing their last phrases of the scene to facilitate quick scene changes during the brief orchestral interludes but also heightening the cinematic qualities -- it is like quick cross-cutting.

    Quintans has a lovely fresh vibratoless timbre like a boy soprano with a strong tonal profile. Charbonneau is a very sensitive actor who I initially found too wispy and lacking in stage presence. His haut-contre register is definitely there but inconsistently integrated with his regular lyric tenor voice. He is not really a baroque specialist so the seams show. He also tired just a bit in the last scene. This indeed was very moving -- as was the reappearance of the two child actors who played David and Jonathas as children.

    • Was there such a thing as marriage in your youth? Wasn’t the custom then to club women on the head and then transport them back to the cave via brontosaurus?

    • Maria Malcontent

      I agree on the character of Saul, and it was certainly effective. In a sense it was almost the most extreme ‘updating’ of the entire opera…what we really had was a Saul that would be recognizable in any number of operas (including as Boris, in the current Vienna production). I am not at all being critical on this…and I think he carried it off brilliantly. But it is as radical a ‘restructuring’ of the opera as anything that might have been more immediately obvious imho

  • Tristan_und

    I found the scene from this production of Jonathan’s death on Youtube and thought it very moving. I’m seeing it at BAM on Sunday and if the rest is as beautiful, I’ll be a puddle of tears by the end.

  • Maria Malcontent

    This is a lovely review. I was there last night and very much taken with the work. I do find myself wishing that here (and in the City Opera recent Rossini) that SOMEONE would write some damn program notes. Here, we had a brief synopsis and the note that the ‘witches’ scene’ was transposed by the universal desire of the performers to an entr’acte. Apparently it starts the opera, which might be more fascinating, but seemed to create less logic, but I’d have appreciated some kinds of program notes. In particular, how would the French court have looked at this at the time?

    In particular, what was the meaning for the Court? Phillip was the brother of the Sun King and was a pretty flagrant girl. You can’t say that people at the time looked at opera purely symbolically….they looked at it in terms of current events (sic) as well. Blow’s Venus and Adonis, arguably the first English opera (some would say close to the last ), was very clearly related to the domestic situation of Charles II.

    None of that detracts from the wonderfulness of the music, but surely knowing more doesn’t detract either.

    Agree very much on the performances….liked the regie, but could have also borne with seeing it done as much in its time (the supposed time of the libretto).

    • DeCaffarrelli

      Well, MM, that’s some of what I tried to do in my preview piece last week about the LAF visit.

    • LittleMasterMiles

      To answer one bit of your question, MM, Charpentier never worked for the court of Louis XIV—David et Jonathas was written for the Jeduit college of Louis-le-grand in Paris. What the Jesuits would have made of the homoerotic subtext is… anybody’s guess.

      I’m seeing D&J on Ssturday and this excellent review has me most excited about it!

      • LittleMasterMiles

        Pardon the typos; I was typing on my phone earlier.

      • parpignol

        I have seen a somewhat stripped-down D&J performed in a Jesuit community, and no one seemed to have any trouble figuring out what to make of it; last night’s performance at BAM was very beautiful. . .

        • I have seen a somewhat stripped-down D&J performed in a Jesuit community


  • Satisfied


  • Satisfied

    As magical as last night’s performance was (and I will elaborate), I couldn’t shake my annoyance for Homoki’s set. Our Dear DeCaffarrelli (wonderful review by the way!) refers to it as an “unnamed place and time,” I looked at the set as a hollowed out two-by-four. The stretching and narrowing of the forefront screen was at first effective, but over time became simply annoying (we get it, the walls are closing in on Jonathas…literally and figuratively…) As GM pointed out “Homoki also brings down the curtain even while the singers are singing” which I found even more annoying. Imagine being totally enraptured by an aria and having the performer effectively shut-out before the end of their last note. Quite frustrating.

    I found many parallels between this and Homoki’s staging of “Der Rosenkavalier” at the komische oper. Of note, Homiki set his DR in a similar limbo-like world (but instead of hollowed-out wood, he employed hollowed-out stone.) What redeemed the setting (if not the production) was the exceptional use of light. Homoki has a tendency to shine a bright light from the far right or far left just off of stage. Such usage has the effect of creating startling silhouettes. However, this too grew tiresome after excessive use both in “Der Rosenkavalier” and in “David et Jonathas.”

    Ok…now that the bad is out of the way, on with the brilliant, and with that we must start with the fabulous Les Arts Florissants led by the incomparable William Christie.

    I was once NEVER one for early music, but I became enraptured by a performance I was taken to at Zankel Hall a few years ago. I have since become obsessed with the style, generally, and this outfit specifically. Whenever I felt annoyed by the production, I simply relaxed further into my seat to hear the lush sound of the early-instrument string section or (to my ears) muted horn section. I know it’s corny to say, but hearing LAF live truly is rapturous.

    Ugh…I want to elaborate more, but damn it all, I actually have work to do and must be out the door by 6 for a performance! So in sum: despite the production’s faults, do not miss this wonderful opportunity to see and hear a wonderful cast and brilliant orchestra.

    • parpignol

      was it really an “unnamed time and place”? wasn’t it early 20th century Palestine with European Zionist settlers, led by Saul, set in opposition to the local late Ottoman (fez-wearing) population? I thought time and place were pretty clearly marked, and that, on the whole, it was interesting. . .

      • Pelleas

        I recognized the early 20th c. Palestine idea mostly in the costumes; the set looked like a Swedish sauna.

      • oedipe

        YES, exactly, Parpignol!

    • Pelleas

      I share your frustration with the design, pretty much to the letter. The occasional effect notwithstanding, I thought it largely boring. But visually only--while some of the singing seemed a shade less sublime than I’ve become accustomed to with LAF, it was an evening of gorgeous music.

  • pasavant

    Strictly for lovers of the antique.

    • la vociaccia

      Unless you only listen to 21st century opera, I’m sorry to say you too are a lover of the antique

      • Camille

        Depends on what you would deem the meaning of antique, non?

        Also, In English there is a connotation of implied quaintness, oddity, and archaic remoteness. Where do we draw the line on what is ‘old’ and what is ‘new’? For myself, I have been doomed to hearing repetitions of New Music, starting in the seventies, recycled over and over and over and usw., until I hardly have the stomach to go anymore, e.g.

        There is also the fact that one man’s antique is another’s junque. It is too relative.
        Sorry, just off on a thoughtcloud.

        • I think La Voci’s point is more that an opera lover who derides M.A. Charpentier as “antique” is perhaps lacking a little self-awareness.

    • oedipe

      Antique AND alien: French baroque in a production from Aix and Salle Favard!

  • Hippolyte

    Homoki’s latest production -- in Zurich -- reviewed by the NY Times:

  • whatever

    I was there last night, as I more or less would go to see Les Arts read the phone book.

    Like the reviewer, I also was struck by a sense of not-quite-up-to-usual standards in some of the singing. In thinking a bit about this, I wonder: generally, when LAF are at BAM they perform in the Harvey; could the Gilman be too large a house for this production?

    Not to bury the lead: this was by metes and bounds the best thing I’ve seen in Gotham this season. By all means, get yourself to Brooklyn to see for yourselves!

    • Chanterelle

      Even in the smaller Salle Favart the the singing sounded less robust and expert than I’m used to from LAF. David did sound overparted--seems funny to apply the word to baroque repertoire, but those pesky haut-contre parts are indeed taxing for most tenors. Homoki’s production grew on me: I liked his expressive use of architectural elements, but visually things were often much too busy. The rearrangement of the sections made for a logical narrative; I can’t imagine Saul’s “mad scene” actually appearing as the prologue (as written). Visse was wonderful — too bad his part was so short.

      In the pre-performance lecture at the Opera Comique the lecturer basically poo-pooed the idea of a homerotic subtext, remarking that it would never have been suggested at the time. I got the feeling she was largely making comforting noises to prepare the matinee crowd for the story.

      Very worth seeing. The score is gorgeous.

    • Hippolyte

      Actually, whatever, I believe you are incorrect. LAF has rarely performed at the Harvey--the only times I can recall were the 2002 Ritorno d’Ulisse, Dido/Acteon in 2010 and the Jardin des Voix concert in 2011; otherwise they have always been in the Gilman except for some things in the mid-90s when they were in a space at BAM that no longer exists.

  • oedipe

    It never ceases to amaze me how important one’s background is in judging and appreciating a production!

    I found the Homoki David et Jonathas both hauntingly beautiful and disturbing. Though I guess if one doesn’t relate to what the director is trying to convey, the result is probably boredom.

    My closest description of the production would be: “Hehalutzim meet Surrealism”! Homoki transposes the biblical story to an environment reminiscent of post-Balfour Palestine and the wooden barracks resemble a cross between the early immigrants’ living conditions and some art works by Magritte or Broodthaers. The stark, closed-in sets create a haunting, loaded atmosphere suggesting underlying conflicts and frustrations that are ready to burst out at any moment. The claustrophobic feeling reaches a climax in the “prologue”, when Saül is haunted by multiple images of his dead wife (a Magritte moment par excellence), while the walls of the wooden barracks move to close in on him. There is a subtle contrast between this unavowed (till the end) pressure-cooker feeling and the joyful attitudes of the chorus members who are costumed either as Jews coming straight out of a shtetl picture, or as Ottoman Turks from early 20th century Palestine. The movements of the chorus are minutely choreographed to suggest -in an intentionally mannered way- a self-imposed optimism. As the opera unfolds, the chorus and the secondary characters are increasingly drawn into the political and the intimate conflicts and dramas that unfold.

    It is remarkable how Homoki manages, with such an economy of means, to invest this “antique” libretto with so much emotional, psychological and political significance for today.

    Someone above mentioned the fact that upon its creation the opera used the biblical story as a shell, to hint at political events, personal conflicts and intrigues taking place in Charpentier’s time. Homoki’s production is a complete détournement, there is little of the initial story left. Nevertheless, it uses the biblical story as a shell to poignantly depict political events and personal conflicts that are relevant in out time; as per the composer’s initial intention…

    • oedipe

      …Someone mentioned above…(Sorry, I didn’t mean “someone above”.)