Edinburgh 2012: David et Jonathas, Festival theatre, review
Paris-based Les Arts Florissants have an admirable capacity for boldly reimagining the Baroque for the modern day, as their adaptation of David et Jonathas shows, writes Mark Brown.
Dedicated to “rediscovering the Baroque”, Paris-based Les Arts Florissants might be expected to be among the most traditional of ensembles. However, as their splendid staging of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 17th-century opera David et Jonathas (adapted and directed by Andreas Homoki) attests, they have an admirable capacity for boldly, yet subtly, reimagining the Baroque for the modern day.
The great friendship between David, slayer of Goliath, and the young Israelite prince Jonathas is uprooted from biblical Palestine and relocated to an unspecified, early-20th century Mediterranean country. The terrible enmity between Israelites and Philistines is refashioned as a conflict between the West, their soldiers dressed in greatcoats, and the East, wearing fez hats and hijabs.
This is far from being Homoki’s most daring intervention, however. The opera, which was written for French Jesuits, extols the virtues of a deep, platonic love between two young men. Here, while the libretto by François de Paule Bretonneau remains unchanged, the part of Jonathas is feminised (played, in male costume, by the outstanding Portuguese soprano Ana Quintans) and the titular friendship is eroticised.
In many ways, however, the most striking innovation of the evening comes in Paul Zoller’s set, an ingenious creation which both attracts and distracts. The piece opens in a vast room which appears to be constructed of stripped wood, and which looks like a Scandinavian hunting lodge. As we soon discover, however, the walls move, allowing for the creation of two rooms or, even, three. More significantly (if too frequently), the walls can also close in symbolically on any character feeling trapped by circumstances.
Zoller’s set is thrilling at times, not least when the Israelite king, Saul, visits a witch, who appears, back to the audience, in three rooms, like a set of figures from a Magritte painting. While the starkness of the design stands in contrast to the opulence of Charpentier’s ornamented score, there is something ugly in its bright simplicity.
There is nothing ugly in the performances, however, with Pascal Charbonneau (David), Neal Davies (Saul) and Frédéric Caton (the Philistine king, Achis) all excellent. The scene in which Quintans’s Jonathas laments what he foresees as the death of David in battle has a heartbreaking power equalled only by the grieving of the superb chorus as the ultimate tragedy of the opera unfolds.
This review was originally published in the Daily Telegraph on August 21, 2012
© Mark Brown