Surpassing the love of women

“La Somme le roy”, circa 1300, via Wikipedia

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.

2 Samuel 1:26 (English Standard Version)

What better definition could you ask for of ‘mates’? As any red-blooded Aussie bloke could tell you, it doesn’t mean they’re poofters.

Nonetheless, one Wikipedia author has been convinced, by some historians proceeding from the ‘gender studies paradigm’, that the bond between David and Jonathan was stronger:

The covenant made between the two men strengthens a romantic rather than political or platonic interpretation of their relationship. At their first meeting, Jonathan strips himself before the youth, handing him his clothing, armor, and weapons, remaining naked before him1. This is when they first make their covenant, not long after their first meeting (1 Sam. 18:3-4). Each time they reaffirm the covenant, love (though not necessarily sexual in nature) is the only justification provided.

One might think it matters little, but for someone producing Charpentier’s opera on the topic it matters a great deal. Pinchgut Opera has presumably faced this decision in the last few months. This is their seventh in the series of baroque operas they’ve been producing at the City Recital Hall each December since 2002. I have no idea what angle they’ll take on the controversial relationship, but I’ll find out on Saturday.

A semi-professional production by the American Opera Theater opted for the gay interpretation, defended here by its director, and eliciting a sceptical reaction from more than one reviewer.

First performed in 1688, David et Jonathas was composed by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, with libretto by the Jesuit priest François Bretonneau. It was billed as a ‘sacred opera’, its five acts presented in the interludes to a spoken drama, Saul, written by Father Etienne Chamillard. Charpentier was one of several first-rate French composers excluded from the court music scene due to the schemes of Lully, who controlled the Academie Royale. So he made his career in sacred music; the first performance of this piece was at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris. It’s the second-oldest opera on a biblical theme.

The text is based on events in the Book of Samuel, in which Jonathan endeavours to shield David from the wrath of Saul, while David in turn tries in vain to prevent Jonathan and Saul from being drawn into a losing battle with the Philistines. Wikipedia has a useful act-by-act synopsis, and there’s a longer one in a Pinchgut newsletter.

The opera was revived in the 1980s after 200 years of obscurity, and if I understand correctly, the AOT production was the first in the English-speaking world, making Pinchgut’s the first fully professional one.

Chas Rader-Shieber is directing the stage part, and the long-standing musical director Anthony Walker has returned after missing last year’s production. The part of David is played by the Swedish Anders Dahlin, who is described as a ‘specialist in hautcontre roles’: this type of voice is apparently related to countertenor, though I haven’t been able to figure whether there is any significant difference. Among other characteristic period instruments, the orchestra will feature a bass violin, which I’m looking forward to hearing.

And the music itself? I haven’t heard the production yet, but on the basis of past Pinchgut efforts I’m sure it will be at least as good as my Opera de Lyon recording from 1982, with Michel Corboz. Charpentier is a bit harder to penetrate than the other major baroque composers — his music is not quite as gut-wrenchingly emotional as Monteverdi’s or as dramatic as Handel’s, but it has a calm, controlled power, and a dignified, elegant quality that thoroughly evokes its period in France. It seeps into you gradually. After listening to the CD a dozen times I’m thoroughly smitten, but I think it’s the kind of music that can weave a spell even on a first hearing. The choruses are as beautiful as any in the baroque repertoire. There’s not too much on Youtube, but this promptional clip for the AOT carries the flavour well.

Bassoon player Simon Rickard participated in a production in Europe in the 1990s. He says:

David and Jonathan contains some of the most exquisite and poignant music I had ever played and it
quickly became one of my favourite works…this opera is a tapestry of airs, choruses, dances and instrumental music very much in the French tradition. The music never stands still, with each new section more beautiful than the last. Charpentiers music looks surprisingly simple on the page but the range of emotions he portrays is phenomenal. From triumph and exaltation to arrogant pride, jealousy and the pain of loss, Charpentier manipulates listeners emotions as expertly as any composer before or since.

As usual there are only four performances in the space of five days, which is why I need to recommend it before seeing it. It opens tonight, and finishes on Monday. I’m sure there are still seats left for the remaining three performances, on Saturday, Sunday and Monday (6,7 and 8 December).

Pinchgut’s productions are the highlight of my calendar; if you’re in Sydney, don’t miss this one.

Update: D&J won favourable reviews in both the Herald (not online) and The Australian, in both cases with some reservations about the staging but only praise for the music.

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15 years ago

And Melbourne???

Sounds quite good and the music did sound great on youtube (through my tinny headphones)

And more importantly, what are your thoughts having actually seen it?

Joshua Gans
15 years ago

I’d long assumed that there were economic reasons for not taking Pinchgut to Melbourne — that three or four nights’ takings didn’t justify transporting the production there. But it may have been rather a problem of venue: I just found a year-old blog post that says:

Melbourne Ho!
Melbourne is building a new space that will suit Pinchgut wonderfully. The Melbourne Recital Centre will open in 2009 and we are tentatively planning to present a production there that year. The Elizabeth Murdoch Hall will seat just over 1000 and will have an excellent acoustic for chamber music and for our type of production.

It would wonderful if it works out and the Melburnians can see what the fuss is about.

I’m seeing it on Saturday, but there should be a review tomorrow in the Herald at least — I’ll update with a link.

15 years ago

Thanks, J. We opened last night and we are all very happy with the show.
A couple of comments:
The haute-contre is really a style of singing often found in the French baroque.
It is usually a high tenor, tho Anders points out it can also be low. He is quite firm that it is not like the counter-tenor which, he says is a “fake” voice.
Well, that is probably a back translation of whatever the Swedish is for “falsetto”.
We will, sadly, not be going to Melbourne soon. The decision was made before the economic crisis and now looks as if it was brilliantly perceptive. For us, and many other arts companies, the aim next year will be survival, so minimum risks will have to be taken. Though we will still take artistic risks with works few have ever heard of. Like Cavalli’s L’Ormindo.
Reviews should be in the SMH and The Australian tomorrow.
One final suggestion – before seeing the show, read the libretto (online on and/or the plot summary in the handout at the door.
The prologue might be difficult to follow, otherwise.
But the music makes the effort worthwhile.

Ken Nielsen

PS ABC Classic FM will broadcast the production 4 February and the CD will be out late next year.

15 years ago

‘haute-contre’ sounds more like a Toorak dinner party than a singing style, but anyway.

I shan’t be in Sydney to see this, but wish I was. Sounds good.