NEW YORK (AP) — There is a moment in Andreas Homoki's staging of "David et Jonathas," where Jonathas sings of his world closing in around him.
He is torn between duty to his father, King Saul, and his lifelong friend and lover, David — the Goliath slayer and future king.
"A-t-on jamais souffert une plus rude peine," he says, roughly translating to "Has anyone ever suffered a harsher sentence?"
And the walls slowly close in on him, inducing spine-tingling claustrophobia for the character and the audience.
Homoki's simple yet sparkling staging of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's 1688 Biblical tragedy, premiered by conductor William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at last summer's Aix-en-Provence Festival, made its U.S. debut Wednesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the first of four performances.
With a libretto by Francois Bretonneau based on the Old Testament story of David and Jonathan, the opera unfolds in five acts and a prologue — which in this staging is shifted to between the third and fourth acts. There are flashbacks to David and Jonathas playing as kids, portrayed by the adorable William Lach and Kivlighan de Montebello. Saul's mother collapses and dies chasing the pair through her kitchen during a game of hide and go seek. Later, she is imagined by Saul to be La Pythonisse (the Witch of Endor). In fact, there are 11 of them in Saul's hallucination.
Paul Zoller's set is basically a wooden box that expands, contracts, divides and retracts; when it fills the width of the stage and the ceiling lowers, it appears CinemaScopic. There are chairs and tables, but little else. In the modern dress by Gideon Davey, the Philistines wear Fezzes and the Israelites loose-fitting clothes in earth tones.
Charpentier's music, filled with moving arias, heated duets and striking choral segments, lacks a musical showpiece, yet the buoyant score is a revelation under Christie, a master of the Baroque repertoire.
He brought the seven primary singers who performed the roles last summer in Aix, and most of them reprised their roles at Paris' Opera Comique in January and the Teatre de Caen in February. Their rehearsal time and chemistry showed. The hugs and kisses between Jonathas and David before battle and Jonathas' death were heartfelt, the anger of Saul seething.
Soprano Ana Quintans, looking a bit Harry Potterish in round glasses, was thrilling in soaring lines of Jonathas. Countertenor Pascal Charbonneau, a growth of stubble on his face, was indefatigable as David, his voice sounding as fresh 2 1/2 hours in as it did at the beginning. Basses Neal Davies (Saul) and Frederic Caton (the Philistine King Achis) maintained regal haughtiness without crossing into caricature.
Countertenor Dominique Visse was a menacing La Pythonisse, tenor Kresimir Spicer slimy as the Philistine army head Joadab and bass Pierre Bessier brooding as the ghost of the prophet Samuel, summoned by the witch.
The French diction of the entire cast was impeccable. The chorus, led by Francois Bazola, purred like a church choir. Playing on original instruments, Les Arts Florissants gave the work a dramatic ebb and flow.
Homoki, former head of the Komischen Oper Berlin and current intendant of the Zurich Opera, deftly makes a 325-year-old composition seem modern. There are additional performances through Sunday, and a DVD from last summer is scheduled for release by Bel Air Classiques on April 30.
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