19 Jul 2012
David et Jonathas at the Aix Festival
Rare, very rare repertory that is not even opera stole the show at the sixty fourth Aix Festival.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
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Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Rare, very rare repertory that is not even opera stole the show at the sixty fourth Aix Festival.
It was an oratorio, David et Jonathas, by Marc-Antoine Charpentier who created between the acts tableaux for Molière comedies before Louis XIV banned frivolous entertainments, like plays and opera. Thus theater, never to be suppressed, moved to the concert hall where bible stories were told. That they were really operas anyway was a secret no one told.
David et Jonathas is about two boys who love each other passionately (that’s the David of the Goliath story by the way, and Jonathas, son of Saul) . And yes, there was a prolonged kiss in the Aix staging by Andreas Homoki, lately intendant of Berlin’s Komishe Oper, coming in as that of Zurich Opera. William Christie and his Les Arts Florisants orchestra were in the pit, about forty musicians, including 24 strings to provide a big, lush sound and winds and percussion to add seemingly infinite colors. The wind roll and thunder sheet, both exceptionally well played, made the case for the virtuosity of this famed early music ensemble.
In concert with all this fire power were its three principal singers, Pascal Charboneau as David, Ana Quintans as Jonathas and Neal Davies as Saul, who delivered the maximum rapture, agony and rage that any drama of the Baroque could possibly conjure. There can be no way to hear how this music sounded long ago, but the suspicion lurks that three centuries of operatic progress have layered bel canto, verismo and expressionism onto what singing once was. These singers gave us all of this.
In these voices the usual vocal technique of floating a tone on a column of air gave way (it seemed) to singing on the chords (the vocal chords), like shouting (or screaming) where the vocal urgency is apparent. Of course exercised by these artists it was singing at its most dramatic. And seventeenth century Catholic priest librettist Père François de Paule Bretonneau gave Charpentier’s singers a lot to sing about.
In the Homoki staging David, an outcast of both the Jews and the Philistines, has been taken into the bosom of Saul’s household, the en famille dinner table. The silent mother, first portrayed by an actress and later brilliantly sung by identically costumed counter-tenor Dominique Visse provides the love, Saul is consumed by suspicions, obsessed that David is a powerful rival. Homoki introduced the innocence and intensity of the David/Jonathas relationship in the overture with two young boys happily playing in Saul’s home. These young boys, wonderful actors, later in the opera may have sung a brief duet as their lips moved though no sound was apparent.
Homoki gently and succinctly portrays the crisis in Saul’s mind and kingdom (Saul’s family) by pantomiming the death of the mother. But the mother transformed into the witch Pythonisse, now Mr. Visse, who appears to torment Saul in a lengthy scene where her presence is inexorably intensified by ten (or so) identical mothers. Mr. Visse rendered this scene otherworldly in an operatic voice that is feminine but is not. It was the voice of a witch.
Young Canadian tenor Pascal Charboneau as David compelled us to suffer the death of Jonathas, his love, to be trapped in his complex feelings for his surrogate father and sworn enemy Saul and to understand his emotional desolation at his coronation as the bible’s King David. Mr. Charboneau is a dynamic performer who has yet to gain final finish though this roughness added to his performance. Portuguese soprano Ana Quintans as Jonathas made time stand still in her lament that she (Jonathas) must forsake her love for David, the eternal nature of such love expressed in suspended tones floating above the staff. Mlle. Quintans is a quite polished singer and actress. English baritone Neal Davies made Saul both a conflicted, more or less contemporary Orthodox Jew pater familias and a conflicted political leader. Stabbed by David he lay seemingly dead through an extensive scene until resurrected by rage he made a final, extensive, spine tingling, vocally splendid lunge at David to avenge the death of his son.
Mr. Homoki with his designer, architect Paul Zoller played on the concert genesis of the opera by constructing a huge wooden box, like a concert stage. It was however a sentient machine that expanded and contracted in concert with the drama and its music, its side walls moving in to crush Saul as he learns that God has forsaken him. Its walls again move in to crush Jonathas when he must decide if he will forsake his duty to his father for the sake of his love for David. The costumes by Gideon Davey were brilliantly simple, a timeless modern adaptation of Orthodox dress and an adaptation of the Arabic thwab.
Not to forget to extol the exemplary performance by Les Arts Florisants chorus, both individual voices in solo lines and the scenes with full chorus. Not only did this fine ensemble find the urgency and excitement of opposing populations in its vocal projection, its members physically embodied the action in stance and movement. It was an opera chorus performance of stellar accomplishment.