Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), prolific composer of opera, ballet and sacred vocal works, premiered his tragic opera David et Jonathas to Francois de Paule Bretonneau’s libretto, at the Jesuit College Louis-le-Grand in Paris in 1688. Les Arts Florissants’ spirited new production from Festival d’Aix-en-Provence to Edinburgh International Festival is in a modern setting with 1940s-style costume.
A scene from David et Jonathas at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh Photo: Pascal Victor
A same-gender love epic amid family tensions, power play and war, the Old Testament story focuses on King Saul of Israel’s enmity towards David, the heroic young Goliath-slayer, whose deep affection for his son Jonathas only increases his distrust. David and Jonathas pledge undying friendship, but driven to the Philistines’ camp, David fears he must slay Saul, his friend’s father, whose order to Jonathas to kill David is refused. The denouement is doom-laden: Jonathas’ death in David’s arms, Saul’s grief-stricken death, and David’s hollow victory: “I have lost all I love”.
Conductor William Christie richly exploits Charpentier’s exquisitely atmospheric cadences; Les Arts Florissants’ chorus and soloists deeply satisfy throughout. Neal Davies interprets Saul with agonised force, while Pascal Charbonneau and Ana Quintans bring enthralling sensitivity to the David and Jonathas roles. Andreas Homoki’s direction blends singing, movement and staging to compelling dramatic effect, with flashbacks of the lovers as boyhood chums and re-arranged prologue of Saul’s encounter with the En-dor witch, adding appeal to the original.
Ingenious staging memorably frames key characters’ turmoil and scenes of conflict. Paul Zoller’s wood-panelled full-stage becomes two or three rooms of changing dimensions, fronted by a black curtain-screen which opens, widens and narrows, capturing the volatile moods, supremely for Saul’s tortured introspection.
This production contributes significantly to the current Charpentier revival.