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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
David et Jonathas (David and Jonathan, H490) (1688)
Pinchgut Opera:
Anders J. Dahlin (tenor) - David;
Sara Macliver (soprano) - Jonathan;
Dean Robinson (baritone) - Saul;
Richard Anderson (bass) - Achis;
Simon Lobelson (tenor) - Joabel;
Paul McMahon (tenor) - La Pythonisse (The Witch);
David Parkin (bass) - Ghost of Samuel;
Cantillation; Orchestra of the Antipodes/Antony Walker
rec. live, City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sidney, Australia, 3 and 6-8 December, 2008. DDD.
Pitch a’ = 392; temperament = Werkmeister 3.
Text and translation included.
ABC CLASSICS 476 3691 [57:51 + 62:26]

Experience Classicsonline

Charpentier’s Te Deum and his Christmas Messe de Minuit, based on popular French carols, have done well on record, but, inexplicably and undeservedly, his music has never achieved the same popularity as that of his near-contemporaries Lully, Rameau and Couperin.
Thanks to the advocacy of Erato, Naxos and Harmonia Mundi, his other vocal and choral music has also had a fair outing, but his dramatic music has fared less well. A 3-CD Erato recording of Médée survives (4509 96558 2), as does a budget-price Harmonia Mundi recording of the wonderful small-scale opera Actéon (HMA195 1095), both performed by Les Arts Florissants directed by William Christie. Their fine recording of Les Arts Florissants, however – the work which gave the group its name – seems to have disappeared without trace; as I write, one online supplier is even asking £107 for what was until recently a budget-price recording.
Two recordings of the prologue-plus-five-act tragédie en musique, or tragédie biblique, David et Jonathas have come and gone, directed by Michael Corboz (Erato, 1982) and William Christie (Harmonia Mundi, 1988). That they, like Les Arts Florissants, are missed is shown by the fact that copies of the mid-price reissue of the Erato and of the budget-price reissue of the Harmonia Mundi are currently being offered online for prices in the £70 price range.
It is much to be hoped that the present recording, which makes a very satisfactory replacement, does not follow them into the deletion limbo. Perhaps the eye-catching CD cover, with the title of the opera boldly displayed in a large font, DAVID + JONATHAN, will help it to sell. It certainly deserves to succeed: within a short two-hour span Charpentier’s librettist, Father François de Paule Bretonneau has condensed the lengthy account in I Samuel of the conflict between David and Saul, the music is unfailingly enjoyable and the performance and recording do both the composer and the librettist justice. The modern listener is spared the Latin tragedy Saul, whose five acts were interspersed with the musical drama at the first performance. Mercifully, most of that Latin text is lost, but I hardly imagine that modern productions would be tempted to employ it.
The Prologue opens with Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor, here named la Pythonisse to link her in the minds of the classically-educated audience with the Pythoness of Delphi, who interpreted the oracle of Apollo. The librettist makes Saul clearly aware of the enormity of what he is doing in breaking the biblical injunction against necromancy and Dean Robinson’s performance, as well as being well sung, leaves us in no doubt of the turmoil in his mind.
In the original production the roles of David and the Witch were sung by an haut-contre, a high tenor/alto voice. On the Erato recording William Christie employed Dominique Visse, a counter-tenor, which is not quite the same thing. Here tenor Anders Dahlin takes the role of David and tenor Paul McMahon that of the Witch – again, not quite the same thing. McMahon has a pleasant, light tenor voice, approximating pretty well to an haut-contre. Charpentier makes Saul and the Witch sing the same words il est l’unique espoir qui reste aux malheureux as it were rhythmically at odds with each other, as if to remind us of Saul’s extreme discomfort at what he is doing in breaking his own laws – in the Bible, it’s the Witch who is most apprehensive – and Robinson and McMahon bring out the effect to splendid effect.
David Parkin as the shade of Samuel is also excellent – just the right blend of the power of the prophet-who-was and the feeble ghost. The words which Charpentier’s librettist gives him are a shortened version of I Samuel 28 15-19, omitting one of the reasons why Yahweh is so displeased – Saul had disobeyed the divine order to slaughter all the Amalekites, men, women and children, a reason hard to reconcile with the Christian concept of a merciful God, though Saul had been motivated by greed rather than compassion.
The contribution of the Orchestra of the Antipodes – the Southern Hemisphere’s capable period-instrument answer to the likes of Les Arts Florissants – and Antony Walker’s direction make no mean contribution to the success of the Prologue, but the power of Charpentier’s music, too, contributes to that success. Purcell’s almost contemporary wonderful 9-minute miniature drama Saul and the Witch of Endor is almost outshone by Charpentier’s treatment of the same theme. Almost, but not quite, when the Purcell is as well performed as it is on Hyperion (CDA66693 or as part of the wonderful set of his complete Sacred Music, CDS44141/51, Bargain of the Month – see review). The composition of the orchestra is listed in the booklet, with the names of the players and the provenance of their instruments. The chosen temperament, Werkmeister 3, dates from approximately the same period as David et Jonathas.
Cantillation’s choral contribution is also excellent, as we hear at the very beginning of Act 1, where they sing the praise of David, the choral parts broken up by fine solo contributions from a Shepherd (Anna Fraser), a Warrior (David Greco) and two Captives. David has been banished by the envious Saul and has taken refuge with his Philistine enemies.
David is understandably chary of receiving their praise, as Anders Dahlin makes clear on his first appearance, Allez, le ciel jaloux attend (CD1, tr.9) and his regretful Ciel! Quel triste combat en ces lieux me rappelle? (CD1, tr.10). Dahlin has a fairly light tenor voice, though he is hardly the haut-contre for whom the part was written. As with McMahon’s Witch, however, only an outright purist would be likely to be upset by his performance.
Richard Anderson as Achis sings with conviction of his delight to be fighting alongside David (CD1, tr.12). Francophones will probably find his pronunciation the least idiomatic of all the principal singers, but I didn’t find that this interfered with my enjoyment of his singing; it’s not quite in same league as Placido Domingo’s German, and I find myself willing to accept that for the sake of the quality of his singing in the title role of Tannhäuser. Anderson’s voice blends and contrasts well with Dahlin’s David.
Simon Lobelson’s Joabel opens Act 2 with his enquiry why David does not hasten to victory (Quel inutile soin en ces lieux vous arreste? CD1, tr.14). As befits the less than attractive figure of Joabel, he is outsung in purely vocal terms by David, but his rendition of Dépit jalouz (CD1, tr.15) strikes just the right dramatic note.
Sara Macliver, a bright and attractive soprano, sang the part of Abra on ABC/Pinchgut Opera’s earlier recording of Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans (see below). Here she sings Jonathas, David’s friend Jonathan, whose brief period of happy reconciliation with David ends the first CD (Act 2, Scene 3, CD1, tr.16). Her voice and Dahlin’s blend excellently in this scene. I could have preferred a livelier account of the small part of Jonathan’s Follower (Ashley Giles) but that is a very small criticism of a very successful scene, ending a most satisfactory account of the first part. If I wanted to be really picky, I could mention that the choir don’t quite seem to get the rhythm of the word jamais right in their concluding chorus Venez tous avec nous, but I think that is largely Charpentier’s fault. I’m sure the audience retired for the interval at this point well pleased with what they had heard.
On CD2, in Acts 3-5, Joabel convinces Saul that David is once more plotting against him and the truce is broken. Despite David’s promise to Jonathan that he will do all that he can to save him and his father, they are both slain in the ensuing battle with the Philistines and Achis proclaims a grieving David the new King of Israel. The librettist puts a dramatic spin on the biblical account by making David present at the deaths of Saul and Jonathan – he even converses with them. Surprisingly, however, when II Samuel 1 offers a wonderful lament for David over the death of Jonathan and Saul, and we might have had something akin to Thomas Weelkes’ affective biblical setting of David’s Lament for Absalom, ‘When David heard that Absalom was dead’, the end of the work moves straight from the death of Saul to Achis’s proclamation and the triumphant chorus in which David is acknowledged as King of Israel.
Act 3 begins with an imagined encounter for there is no biblical authority, in which Achis tries to persuade Saul of David’s complete loyalty, after which Saul gives way again to the demons which are driving him and resolves that an honourable death is the only possible outcome for him. Once again, as on the first CD, the singing is excellent and the dramatic potential is not ignored. Satisfied that the second half was going to be just as good as the first, at this point I set aside my critical slate and simply enjoyed the rest of the opera, though with my Beckmesser slate ready to hand. Not once was I moved to take it up to record any critical remarks.
The librettist may not have included that lament from II Samuel for Saul and Jonathan, but there is one from David and the chorus for Jonathan alone (Ciel! Ciel! Il est mort, CD2, tr.17), just before the final dialogue of David and Saul and the death of the latter. This is just the kind of lament that needs to be handled carefully if it is not to sound a parody of itself; not least it requires the funereal aspect of the words to shine through without being sung at too funereal a pace. The pace here and the quality of the singing are just right, which means that the transition to the triumphant march prefacing Achis’s proclamation of David as King (Joignez à vos exploits l’honneur du diadème, CD2, tr19) is not too abrupt. Nor do Charpentier and his librettist overdo the rejoicing at the end (CD2, tr.20). As throughout the work and this performance and recording of it, everything in this last scene is just right and the final rapturous applause again justly deserved – it has to be faded out.
The first-rate singing throughout – even the singers of small parts such as Captive 1 and Captive 2 are credited in the booklet, page 33 – is also matched by excellently clear diction, though none of the principals is, to the best of my knowledge, a native French speaker, and I am not aware that any attempt is made to match late-seventeenth-century French pronunciation, for example of the -oi- sound. Only Richard Anderson sounds slightly less than fully idiomatic (see above).
As well as David et Jonathas, Charpentier wrote a Latin-text work on the same theme, Mors Saulis et Jonathæ (H403), of which there is a most attractive performance by Gérard Lesne and Il Seminario Musicale on Naïve E8821, coupled with Sacrificium Abrahæ and In Circumcisione Domini – see review – a wonderful recording which I discovered courtesy of the Naxos Music Library and which certainly goes onto my wish/to buy list. The same performers also offer a beautiful recording of Charpentier’s settings of Tenebræ on an inexpensive Virgin Veritas twofer (522021 2 – see review); you can find some suggestions for further exploration of his music in that Tenebræ review.
I must add an excellent Hyperion recording of Charpentier’s 4-choir Mass (Messe à quatre chœurs), le Reniement de S Pierre, and other works, which I discovered courtesy of a review by John Quinn and downloaded from the Hyperion download site in excellent lossless sound (Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore, CDA67435). That recording, for me, replaces the good Malgoire recording of the Mass, on Warner Apex 2564 617452, though that budget-price CD remains recommendable for the Boyvin organ works on it.
I recently recommended an ABC Classics Pinchgut Opera recording of Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans (476 6957 – see review); if anything, the performance on this new Charpentier recording is even better, especially as, unlike the Vivaldi, it has no current competition. The recording is first rate, with very few extraneous noises apart from the well-deserved applause at the end of each CD. The presentation is good, with the libretto and an idiomatic translation by Natalie Shea, together with perceptive and informative notes by Erin Helyard. The addition of a summary might have been useful. I wonder if a visual record was made of this production and, if so, if there is any prospect of its appearing on DVD or Blu-ray. Whatever the prospects of that might be, I am perfectly content to give the CDs a strong recommendation; I did seriously consider this set for Recording of the Month. You can hear the whole of this performance on Naxos Music Library – but I can almost guarantee that if you do, you will want to purchase the CDs, especially when even the price is right.
Brian Wilson


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