Charpentier's career in the French theatre was circumscribed by the fact that Lully had been granted a monopoly on opera production by Louis XIV. Charpentier had to create a career for himself on the fringes of the Royal Court. One of the ways he did this was to establish a relationship with the College of Louis le Grand, one of the greatest Jesuit schools in France. The school had a tradition of musical interludes, combining morally uplifting messages with musical forms which approached Lullian opera. David et Jonathas
was commissioned in 1688 to be performed alongside Etienne Chamillard's Latin play Saul.
The play takes place mainly in the Israelite camp and the opera in the Philistine camp. The play provided the bulk of the action and Charpentier's opera the more inward passages. The opera's prologue, which would have opened the evening, is the dramatic scene of Saul visiting the Witch of Endor to summon the ghost of Samuel. But after this opening the opera remains more reflective.
This new recording was made live at Pinchgut Opera performances in Sydney in December 2008. It comes as an interesting contrast to the two recordings in the catalogue, those of William Christie and Michel Corboz, both studio recordings made in the 1980s. Pinchgut Opera are an Australian group based around the choir Cantillation and the period instrument Orchestra of the Antipodes. They do an annual staged performance of baroque or early classical opera and this was their 2008 offering.
One of the biggest differences between this disc and those of Corboz and Christie is that the roles of David and La Pythonisse (the Witch of Endor) are played by tenors, rather than male altos. Both roles were written for the haut-contre voice and are most satisfactory sung by tenors if ones can be found who are comfortable with the high tessitura. In fact Anders J. Dahlin is more than comfortable and I can only describe his performance as spectacular. Being live gives it that extra edge, but the voice is nicely focused and beautifully free. He approaches the part with a freedom and flexibility which speaks of his experience in the French baroque repertoire.
Jonathas is a relatively small role, it would originally have been sung by a boy soprano. There is a profoundly touching final scene as Jonathas dies in David's arms, nicely realised by Dahlin and Sara Mcliver as Jonathas. Mcliver is a talented young Australian soprano whose work I have come across before and it is a pleasure to hear her in this role. She has a nicely centred voice and whilst not boyish, has a suitably concentrated timbre.
Paul McMahon makes a chilling and incisive Pythonisse. He does not seem quite comfortable with the high tessitura, but uses this to advantage. Also in the opening scene, David Parkin contributes a black-voiced Samuel.
Regarding the Saul of Dean Robinson I am rather less enthusiastic. He sounds taxed by the role’s low tessitura. He performs creditably and conveys Saul's irrationality and madness. He also shows some feel for the French baroque style, but I wanted the low notes to resonate more. The same is true I am afraid of Richard Anderson who plays Achis. The remaining principal is that of Joabel, nicely taken by baritone Simon Lobelson. One complaint, which I find myself frequently making, is that the voices are not well differentiated in character so you have to look at the libretto to be sure who is singing.
The recording is based on live recordings and this helps to give a feeling of immediacy and vividness.
The chorus, Cantillation, make a strong contribution. This being French opera, the uses of chorus and dance is far greater than in the Italian model. The Orchestra of the Antipodes, numbering over thirty players, is crisply authoritative in the pit. And they get the chance to shine in the instrumental numbers. Both groups contribute strongly and lustily.
Conductor Antony Walker has a nice feel for the large-scale structures of each act, and keeps the drama moving without ever making it feel rushed; important in a reflective work like this.
This isn't perfect but it is an appealing record of what sounds like a fascinating performance; one made memorable by the fine David of Anders J. Dahlin.Robert Hugill
see also review by Brian Wilson