Friday, November 23, 2018

The Israeli premiere of Charpentier's "David et Jonathas". Patrick Cohën-Akenine directs soloists, Ensemble Barrocade and the Madrigal Singers

Photo: Yoel Levy
To commemorate the Saison France Israël, Ensemble Barrocade presented the Israeli premiere of the opéra biblique “David et Jonathas” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). This writer attended the performance on November 17th 2018 at the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Yearim, some 10 kilometres west of Jerusalem. Guest conductor/lead violin Patrick Cohën-Akenine (France) was joined by soloists soprano Einat Aronstein, countertenor Yaniv D’Or and bass Arnaud Richard (France). Barrocade also hosted violone player François Poly (France) and Johannes Knoll (Austria/Switzerland) - oboe and recorder. The Madrigal Singers (conductor: Etay Berckovitch) performed the opera’s choruses and small ensemble sections.


Charpentier's “David et Jonathas” was commissioned by one of the most prominent Jesuit schools in France, the College Louis-le-Grand, to take place together with “Saul”, a play in Latin by Etienne Chamillard, one of the Jesuit Fathers. Charpentier's libretto, closely allied to the play (now lost) but independent of it, was by another Jesuit, François Bretonneau. “David et Jonathas” is what the French Baroque considered a “tragédie en musique” of the Lullian genre, but this work is stamped with Charpentier’s strong individuality, his harmonic richness and its affecting pathos. It was first performed at the College in February 1688, by which time Lully had died and the stringent ordinances presided over by him affecting theatre music now lifted. In his program notes, Barrocade harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon draws a comparison between King Saul’s jealousy of David and Lully’s jealousy of Charpentier. “David et Jonathas” (1688), of which we heard pivotal sections, consists of an overture, prologue and five acts, with the focus being on the portrayal and psychological development of the principal characters. However, in Act 5 the action comes to the fore as we see Saul beaten in battle and Jonathas mortally wounded. A striking difference between this biblical-based work and other French tragédies lyriques is the exclusion of ballet (although it is not known whether the original performance included dancers); dance was indeed the mainstay of French Baroque opera.


The scene opens close to Mt. Gilboa between Saul’s camp and that of the Philistines. From the very first bars of the overture, one is immediately made aware of Patrick Cohën-Akenine’s vigorous, robust instrumental sound, energizing and involving throughout. “David et Jonathas” abounds in instrumental movements, the players' substantial accenting evoking many a lively dance form, with the instrumental score also endorsing  emotions accompanying the course of events. This rarely-staged sacred tragedy offers so much in the way of instrumental expression - Charpentier was a master orchestrator- and Ensemble Barrocade, its members and guest players providing a lush and polished performance on period instruments, did not disappoint. As to Charpentier’s beautiful use of woodwind instruments, there was his engaging use of recorders (Shai Kribus, Johannes Knoll) to highlight the work’s tragedy and grieving in appealing, plangent utterances. Etay Berckovitch has done outstanding work with The Madrigal Singers, twenty or so singers possessing some excellent and interesting voices; the ensemble’s well blended, incisive and finely sculpted singing added prestige to the performance. One example was the impactful choral effect of the despairing cries of “Hélas!” (Alas) on Jonathan’s death in Act 5, Scene 5, each triggered by differing dynamics.  


In the role of David (probably sung originally by Charpentier himself) countertenor Yaniv D’Or’s singing and acting were passionate, committed and indeed moving in his portrayal of the conflicted, reluctant hero. Portraying Jonathan (originally sung by a boy) Einat Aronstein was radiant and poignant, her stable, ample voice communicating the gamut of emotions demanded by the role. Colouring each gesture of the text with the richness and resonance of his vocal- and emotional range and his theatrical panache, Arnaud Richard was authoritative and gripping as Saul, uncompromising and fervent and beset with suspicion.


The mise en scène was handled by Sharon Weller, who also guided the soloists in the use of historical gestures. There was no scenery and costumes were historically acceptable, allowing Cohën-Akenine and the artists to present the essence of the Old Testament parable in an elegant, ravishing and rapturous musical account of incorruptible love in all its complications, leaving some of the age-old questions of it (asked and answered by other productions of the opera) up to the listener.


Under the musical direction of viola da gamba player Amit Tiefenbrunn, Barrocade, the Israeli Baroque Collective, was founded in 2007.  

Amit Tiefenbrunn,Ophira Zakai,Yaniv D'Or,Einat Aronstein (Yoel Levy)

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