This review should appear at Opera Britannia shortly.
Les Arts Florissants – Edinburgh Festival – 17 August 2012
This production of Charpentier’s biblical epic is a showcase for some exquisite vocal work which is delivered despite an incoherent dramatic interpretation which does nothing to aid a modern appreciation of the work at hand.
From the moment the curtain rises, the interpretation of this piece that we are going to be subjected to is clear. The cast stand motionless staring out at the audience in vaguely middle-eastern dress. Then as the music proceeds they separate out into two groups, one on either side of the stage. Our eyes look them over and realise that they are in fact wearing different dress. The men on one side of the stage (the Hebrews) are wearing black felts hats. The men on the other side (the Philistines) are wearing fezes. The two groups glare at one another and it becomes immediately apparent that the director thinks it is reasonable to retell the story of David and Jonathan using the stage directions from a left-over production of The Montagues and Capulets. The trouble is, and it is trouble that bedevils the work from the outset, David and Jonathan are not Romeo and Juliet at all. Their saga is one which is fundamentally about suspected treachery within a royal palace. Saul’s fundamental fear is that he will be overthrown by one of his own not by an enemy. Biblically, it is a saga with more than enough drama to get us through many a night at the opera. Sadly that rich heritage is ignored by a director apparently intent on delivering to us his own peculiar baroque confection which might just as well be entitled West Bank Story.
The sparse set is the inside of a wooden box. It is long. It is rectangular. It is lit with a cold, direct lighting scheme which will do us no favours as the evening progresses. And the sides of the stage move. They move in. They move out. They move in whenever any of the characters is feeling under pressure. They move out when the tension eases. After you’ve seen the walls move in and out a few times it all feels rather predictable. And they move in and they move out all over again.
The moving walls were also used to make smaller cuboid shapes in which some of the scenes were to occur though inevitably, the narrower the stage became, the more that audience members on either side of the stage missed some of the action.
However, notwithstanding this rather dull action on stage it soon became apparent that the joys to be found in the piece are all musical rather than dramatic. The singing was simply gorgeous.
In a strong cast, the two singers playing the title roles were outstanding. Pascal Charbonneau’s David was gentle on the eye and intense in his singing. Ana Quintans as Jonathas had a lightness of touch in her voice that seemed completely effortless. They sang well together though as male tenor kissed female soprano it was difficult to really enter into the conceit of a homoerotic undertone to their relationship.
Neal Davies’s Saul was not only King of Israel but also king of the stage. Though his opposite number in the Philistine army (Frédéric Caton as Achis) was to beat him in battle, Davies was to win the battle of the voices. His Saul was troubled, grieving and difficult to handle. Acted flashback scenes during the musical ballet interludes attempted to give us some insight into Saul’s troubles and why he was so high maintenance. Thus we had two child actors portraying a youthful David and Jonathas being present at the death of Saul’s wife. Now, all this is directorial embellishment, unsupported either by the text used by Charpentier or the text of Holy Writ itself, as any Edinburgh audience Sunday-schooled in presbyterian Morningside would surely have known. They might also have thought that presenting the Witch of Endor in the same outfit as Saul’s imagined wife, the better to call up the ghost of father-figure Samuel the Prophet, was taking one neo-Freudian step too far.
However, here again, though what was happening on stage was quite bewildering, the singing was superb. The stage was filled after a while with many women identically clad as Saul’s imaginary wife. As the Witch sang about King Saul’s troubles the wives all writhed around the stage. It was certainly visually very compelling but one was left wondering what was going on. The appearance of Samuel’s ghost to warn that Saul would come to a bad end was surely deserving of more theatrical magic than simply being sung off-stage to give the effect that Saul was hearing an inner voice. This, combined with the curious decision to move this revelation, which forms the prologue to Charpentier’s work to the end of the first half robbed the story of much of its essential tragedy.
However, that Witch could sing. Dominique Viese’s cross-dressing harpy was weird, strange and bewildering but his voice was one of the great highlights of the evening. Vocally, he was possessed a sorcery that not all countertenor posses; soaring high with a clever and entirely appropriate nastiness.
The star of the show though was not one of its principle singers. Without any doubt, the evening was made worthwhile by the most enchanting choral singing. Even when dealing with the most complex and decorated sections of Charpentier’s sumptuous score, the chorus of Les Arts Florissant was disciplined, precise and graced with vocal depth and insight. The greatest test of a choir is whether it can move me in a single word. As Jonathas lay dying in David’s arms, the whole ensemble cried “Alas, alas” with such pathos that the effect was heart-rending.
Down in the pit it was obvious that William Christie was firmly in charge. A few early fluffs in the woodwind were soon put far from mind as the band got into its stride with Charpentier’s complicated and much embroidered rhythms. Particular note should be paid to whoever was operating the thunder sheet. The thunder appeared to roll around the theatre, unsettling and very real indeed.
The Edinburgh International Festival has made a great habit of putting on semi-staged works in recent years. It was disappointing that this fully staged piece would probably have worked better in an oratorio setting than by being given this dull and also confusing staging by director Andreas Homoki.
William Christie first tackled this piece in a great recording in 1998. The passion remains in the music. The business on stage did little to enhance the thrill and excitement of hearing Les Arts Florissants, still at the top of their game.