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David and Jonathan | Pinchgut Opera
Written by Daniela Kaleva   
Friday, 12 December 2008 00:17
David and Jonathan | Pinchgut OperaLeft - Anders J. Dahlin & Sara Macliver. Cover - Madeleine Benson. Photos - Sarah Puttock

Sydney audiences have been initiated into the high art of operatic performance for the past seven years. Pinchgut Opera is a gem amongst arts companies in that it succeeds year after year in doing true justice to rare masterpieces within the rich tradition of opera. This year the work chosen has been a biblical tragedy in the French Baroque style, which comes not from the famous European court houses but from the stages of seventeenth century Jesuit schools in France.  School dramas were end-of-year spectacles designed to teach and display rhetorical eloquence, humanistic ideas and religious piety. The prologue and five acts of David and Jonathan were incorporated as musical intemèdes into the five-act Latin drama Saul. The work was performed for the first time in the best Jesuit school, the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris in 1688. The progressive ideas of Jesuit school drama influenced quite a few musicians who created new forms of music theatre during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Bretonneau’s and Charpentier’s opera is a masterpiece modelled to antique tragedy which at the time pushed the boundaries of opera in its striving to dramatic truthfulness and natural unity, resonating with ideals which were applied to opera some decades later. The Pinchgut production is one of few recent revivals of this 320 year old forgotten work.

Librettist and composer employ the best of rhetorical means and Baroque sonorities to illuminate the psychological dimensions pertinent to fear (King Saul) and jealousy (Joabel) as well as those of loyalty (Jonathan) and righteousness (David) in the camp of the Israelites. On a large scale, the devastating effect of fear and jealousy plays out through the ensuing war between the Israelites and Philistines, while on a micro-level it results in personal loss. The main protagonist David – a virtuous and charismatic warrior - deals with suspicion and jealousy, faces the duty of having to fight against his own kind, and ends up earning a crown but losing his beloved Jonathan. That the relationship between David and Jonathan, the son of King Saul, is same-sex romantic love is absolutely evident in the music, listen to Act IV, Scene 2 for instance. Despite the fact that in Jesuit drama casts were composed of men and boys only, the transparency of same-sex love on the Jesuits’ stage is a mystery. Here director Chas Rader-Shieber and musical director Antony Walker dispel gender bias by ingenious casting. Jonathan is acted and sung by a woman, Sara Macliver, as a trouser role. The chorus is composed of women and men, while the rest of the male main cast is further balanced by the presence of a girl in the role of La Pythonisse. In this way the focus is shifted away from gender relationships onto the core themes of the opera – war and peace.

The set by Brad Clark, costumes by Alexandra Sommer and lighting by Bernnie Tan-Hayes capture visually both the period, the references to war and the nuances of the dramatic narrative. A half-destroyed hall in a French chateau provides the scenery for the enfolding tragedy. A large reproduction of David with the Head of Golliath by Caravaggio graphically reveals the bloody affairs of war. The costumes support the modern reading of the tragedy. David and the chorus are soldiers of contemporary guerrilla warfare, while the rest of the cast are dressed in a fascinating blend of period costume and haute couture with embellishments that indicate rank, where especially striking is the costume, wig and make up of La Pythonisse, portrayed by Madeleine Benson. This take on a witch is remarkable since the innocent beauty and muteness of the girl created the necessary esoteric quality of the character and opposed Saul’s complete corruption during the supernatural scene in the Prologue. The lovely singing of Paul McMahon as one of the soldiers onstage added to effect.

The production emphasises the transcendental nature of the main themes by providing visual and dramaturgic references to contemporary warfare. The portrayal of the warriors is genuine as it includes both barbaric and human aspects. During the prologue the chorus turns into demons with masks on their faces moving in a whirl of storm music, while at times of rest between battles their weariness and longing for loved ones is referenced through their passive presence and the letters and books they hold in their hands.

Perhaps as an allusion to the original play, each act was preceded by declamation. Genuine war letters, taken from published correspondence of Australian soldiers, illuminate the complex issues of war. The most moving of the readings was the declamation before the final act, when a soldier declaims a letter in which he describes to the parents of a comrade how their son fell in battle. As the reading progressed, the overture of the fifth act commenced. Accompanied by mournful music, the delivery reached a dramatic pinnacle. Although this psycho-dramatic effect is not inherent in the original score, the use of combined spoken text and musical accompaniment (melodrama) is not out of the ordinary in Latin school plays. The earliest notated extant example of this technique comes from one such Latin school play, Sigismundus Hungariae Rex, 1751.

The letter readings are deeply intimate and touching and bring closer the devastation of war to audiences which have no experience of it. The soldiers salute the audience with their letters by lifting them up above their heads. This letter salute is a salute of warning and a salute of peace - a new gestural vocabulary proposed by the director for a new generation of soldiers of peace. It is beautiful to see a production taking a stand on the madness of war through a text which thoroughly explores its psychological origins. The entire libretto is available online. See Act II, Scene 2 for a demonstration of how jealousy takes over conscience and Act III, Scenes 2 and 3 for a comprehensive description of the delusion resulting from fear and suspicion.

The music is devoid of artificial structural frills and follows the rhetorical artistry of the dramaturge. There are no recitatives and da capo arias, but an organic flow of arioso, solo airs, ensembles, choruses and orchestral music which through tempo, rhythm, tonality, figuration, timbre and orchestration express the emotional states of the characters. The Orchestra of the Antipodes led by Antony Walker explored dance tempos, dynamics and tone of delivery in true Baroque style with perfect balance and unity. Assisted by the good acoustics of the City Recital Hall Angel Place they achieved ideal intimacy. Similarly to the chorus in antique tragedy, the chorus in this opera has a prominent part. Cantillation is a group of excellent soloists who have first-rate solo singing voices but who can also blend into a most beautiful organic whole – an enchanting dexterity.

With profound sensibility, Antony Walker led the main cast into world-class performances. The brilliance of Sara Macliver’s voice was pure rapture, while her execution of Jonathan’s physical dimension was strong. The vulnerability and emotional depth of Anders J. Dahlin’s haute-contre singing touched every heart. Dahlin is handsome. The absence of macho allure in his stage presence emphasised the reason for which David suffered so much envy; David fought and defeated Goliath with a staff and a sling. Dahlin’s aloofness, however, did not suit the character. It is difficult to portray the inner might of those whose actions stem from devoutness to God. Dean Robinson (Saul) and Simon Lobelson (Joabel) epitomised the egoistic military male vocally and histrionically. The excellent casting was complemented by the strong bass voice of David Parkin as the Ghost of Samuel and Richard Anderson’s truthful Achis.

In the final act, the narrative was overtaken by the force of musical affect amidst the substratum of stillness. The spellbound audience witnessed the deaths of father (Saul) and son (Jonathan) - one violent and full of accusation, the other surrendering and loving. The final exuberant celebratory finale sung by the chorus is purposefully contrasted by David’s sorrow which was also mirrored in the faces of the singing soldiers. Here the festive music contrasted with the stern faces of the chorus reminded the audience that there could be no winners in war. The gracious energetic music and visuals came together beautifully to present explicit ideas and ideals. The resonance of soloists, chorus and orchestra was a real luxury and the audience knew that they were treated to opera performance of the highest possible standard.

It is rare to be a witness of great art. It is even rarer when this great art is a live performance of an opera. The experience is beyond description - lace, gold, velvet, chocolate, silk and pearl still resound in memories of abundance, noble restraint and goodness. The ABC recording will capture the fresh new interpretation of Charpentier’s Baroque textures and some of the sparkle of the beautiful voices. It will be a historical document of one of the revivals of David and Jonathan on the world stage. It will be also an artefact of the première of this old work on Australian soil and a study recording of music interpretation. For those who simply enjoy French Baroque music, the recording will be pure musical pleasure. Yet, the experience of merging one's mind with that of the artists, of elevating one's thought to contemplate universal themes together with everyone present and of vibrating with the sounds of orchestra and singers remains only with the few who have had the privilege to witness the performances.

Pinchgut Opera presents
David and Jonathan (David et Jonathas)
Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Director Chas Rader-Shieber

Venue: City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney
Dates/Times: 3, 6, 8, December 2007 at 7.30pm & 7 December 2007 at 5pm
Tickets: $45 to $110
Bookings: City Recital Hall 02 8256 2222
Visit: www.pinchgutopera.com.au
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