by Marina Harss
If you think Salieri had it bad, imagine poor Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643—1704), a composer whose career was thwarted at every turn by his over-ambitious rival, the colorful Jean-Baptiste Lully. By 1674, Lully, music master to Louis XIV, had secured an ironclad monopoly over all operatic spectacles in France. Any performance even vaguely resembling opera—using more than a certain number of performers, for example—other than those staged by his Académie Royale de Musique was banned. This, just as Charpentier had entered into a fertile collaboration with Molière at the Comédie Française.
According to Catherine Cessac, author of a 1988 biography of Charpentier, his music for Molière’s
Le Malade Imaginaire was repeatedly vetoed by the courts and had to be rewritten three times, each version reducing the orchestration and number of voices. Finally, Charpentier gave up and entered the household of Mademoiselle de Lorraine, Duchess of Guise (in the Marais), for whose private company he composed a series of allegorical and pastoral chamber operas. One of these, Les Arts Florissants, would inspire the name of William Christie’s Baroque ensemble three centuries hence.
“I have a great love for the music of Charpentier,” Christie recently told an interviewer in France, where he has lived for many years. “It touches me deeply. David et Jonathas is one of the most important works in the Baroque repertory being performed today. And one of the most moving.” Christie has returned to it several times over the last three decades, first recording it with Les Arts Florissants in 1988. Now performed as a standalone opera that will be at BAM from April l7 to 21, it was originally conceived in 1688 as a series of musical interludes woven into a five-act biblical play, Saül, by Father Étienne Chamillard. The play was recited, in Latin, by pupils of the élite Collège Louis le Grand, where Charpentier had become maître de musique in 1687.
The Jesuits, undergoing a period of enormous influence (and wealth), enjoyed displaying their affluence in extravagant religious spectacles of music, singing, even dance. They imported castrati from Italy and even presented works on non-Biblical themes drawn from Greek and Roman history. Students at Louis le Grand were taught elocution, acting, and deportment, all valuable skills for court life. These elaborate productions were the first real challenge to Lully’s dominion over the operatic form. Eventually, as Louis XIV became more pious, the court composer’s influence waned. In 1687, Lully died, famously, from a foot wound after accidentally stabbing himself with his conducting stick. The only Charpentier tragédie en musique ever performed by the Académie Royale, Médée (1693), is considered among the finest examples of French 17th-century opera.
It was in the supportive environment of the Jesuits that Charpentier composed his biblical tragedy David et Jonathas (1688) with a libretto by Père Bretonneau. Introduced by a prologue—which Christie places mid-opera—each of the work’s five acts followed a scene from Chamillard’s play. Because the play and its musical counterpart covered much of the same narrative ground, Charpentier dispensed with retelling the story through recitatives and complex stage action. The five acts paint emotional portraits of the main actors in the story, and reveal the internal conflicts that lead to the work’s tragic dénouement.
What, then, is the overall arc of Charpentier’s David et Jonathas? It is the story of a deep friendship, perhaps even love, between two men. Before it begins, David (the onetime shepherd who slew Goliath) has been banished from the court of Saul, King of Israel, because the monarch fears the young man’s influence over his son, Jonathan. The two men, now in enemy camps, long for each other’s company and meet in secret. But world events are beyond their control; they are forced to do battle, on opposite sides. Jonathan is killed. His father, King Saul, commits suicide. David is proclaimed the new King of Israel, but even at his moment of glory, he has thoughts only for his dead friend. His last words in the opera are: “I have lost all that I love/All is lost for me.”
The nature of this love has been debated for centuries. For Andreas Homoki of Germany, who directs this elegant, modernized production for Les Arts Florissants (first performed at the Aix-en-
Provence Festival), there is little doubt. It is the story of a “forbidden love,” of two young people whose allegiance to opposing clans seals their tragic fate. But also, because of the touching intensity of Charpentier’s music, it is a portrait of love as a utopian force for good, with the capacity to “heal wounds and inspire hope in the world”—a kind of Romeo and Juliet story, drawn from the Old Testament.
Marina Harss is a freelance dance and culture writer and translator in New York. Reprinted from March 2013 BAMbill.