Haïm-ing High – Charpentier’s David et Jonathas (27 March)

David et Jonathas

David – Paul Agnew
Jonathas – Jaël Azzaretti
Saul – Laurent Naouri
Achis – Andrew Foster-Williams

Choir of the Enlightenment
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Emmanuelle Haïm

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 March, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

For the second night in as many months the Barbican Hall, as part of its Great Performers Series, has resounded to the strains of Marc-Antoine Charpentier.Not William Christie this time (he’s busy with Zürich Opera with Handel’s Radamisto which he brought to the Royal Festival Hall earlier this week, which I reviewed), but one of his protégés, the harpsichordist now conductor Emmanuelle Haïm.

Whereas Christie brought two ’one-acters’, Haïm brought the five-act (plus prologue) David et Jonathas.With a libretto by Jesuit priest François de Paul Bretonneau this tragédie en musique (only one of two to survive, the other being Médée) was originally written for a Jesuit school performance in 1688 and then was interspersed with a five-act prose drama, which must have extended the running time to four or five hours.Charpentier died in poverty, but this work lives on.

Seemingly Rameau, appointed organist at the Jesuit Novitiate in 1706, witnessed a performance at the Collège Louis-le-Grand two years after Charpentier’s death, which made a deep impression.As Graham Sadler mentioned in his bizarrely jokey note (a reference to Mary Poppins’s spoonful of sugar stood out like a sore thumb), Rameau, 30 years later, in his first opera Hippolyte et Aricie, actually quoted from David et Jonathas.

For British audiences who have recently enjoyed both Great Performers and Proms performances of Handel’s Saul (courtesy of Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort), the story would have been at least familiar, although Charpentier starts his tale with the Witch of Endor (chorus counter-tenor Daniel Auchincloss), about halfway through Handel’s version.The comparison with Handel is probably unfair, as Charpentier’s style of musical drama is more subtle than the German’s, who was born just three years before David et Jonathas was composed.

And yet there was much to enjoy in this immaculately prepared performance which leaves the Barbican to tour, including a visit to the Salzburg Easter Festival.Star of the show was Paul Agnew’s David, his commitment and delivery outshining all other contributions; but Haïm, bobbing up and down between harpsichord keyboard and conducting position, was ever-attentive and cajoled a distinctive and delightful accompaniment from a closely seated Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.With continuo (two pairs of cello and theorbo, each sharing one stand of music, plus a second harpsichord) directly to her right, and wind over to the left (trumpet and timpani players only coming on when necessary), with the chorus arrayed in one line across the back, from which various singers came forward to a special stage amidst the orchestra to sing additional parts, the ensemble was as tight in execution as it was in formation.

Laurent Naouri was suitably tortured as Saul, Richard Burkhard (from the chorus) manipulative as Joabel, trying – like Saul – to get rid of David.Ultimately in the final battle both Saul and his son (not brother, as in the programme’s cast list) Jonathan are killed and David is heartbroken.Paul Agnew’s pure tone found every bit of emotion from Charpentier’s music, but unfortunately the part for Jonathan gives little such musical meat – a great shame when you have such a great singer as Jaël Azzaretti in the role.

Compared to Radamisto from Christie, the quality of performance was so much more secure under Haïm.However, to my taste, Charpentier lags far behind Handel in the musical drama stakes.

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