Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Gay “West Side Story” Set To French Baroque Music

On one of our trips to Paris in 2003 and 2004, my brother and I visited the Harmonia Mundi disc shop on Avenue de l'Opéra. At the time, the modest-sized shop seemed to have in stock virtually every Harmonia Mundi disc ever issued, including discs never released in the U.S. or discs no longer in print in North America. I took advantage of the occasion—and prices: new issues aside, every disc in the shop was available for eight Euros—and bought thirty or so Harmonia Mundi discs and had them shipped home.

I still have not listened to all the discs I picked up that day.

In fact, it was only last month, after the passage of almost ten years, that I at last listened to Harmonia Mundi’s recording of Charpentier’s tragédie biblique, “David et Jonathas”, one of the sets I had acquired at the Harmonia Mundi shop in Paris. The instigation for my listening: a January trip to Paris, a trip during which we attended a performance of “David et Jonathas” at Salle Favart.

Listening to the Harmonia Mundi recording fifteen or so times, I found “David et Jonathas” to be the least interesting and least inspired Charpentier piece I had ever encountered. The score is primarily contemplative music, and demonstrates little melodic gift and little instrumental imagination. It is an academic work, written for a college of Jesuits and intended to be given a single performance, and features none of the rhythmic and harmonic life to be found in Charpentier’s very finest music.

(The work ended up being performed by more than one Jesuit college, which solely accounts for its survival: a copy was made by a copyist for a Jesuit college performance outside Paris, and the copy survives. The composer’s own score was not preserved, and Charpentier never included “David et Jonathas” in his meticulously-maintained and elaborately-bound notebooks intended to represent his official and comprehensive work-product; Charpentier’s notebooks, in remarkable condition, survive in French national archives to this day.)

Charpentier was at his best in church music. All Charpentier church music I have heard is at a very high level.

Charpentier’s instrumental music is nowhere near as fine—instrumental music was, after all, the Couperin family trade; the Couperins possessed not only the franchise but also the talent—and Charpentier’s operas, the late and great “Médée” aside, are weaker still; they are several notches below the operas of Rameau.

I do not believe that Charpentier’s strength was dramatic music. Even his noble “Médée” suffers in comparison to the operas of Rameau—and his five-act “David et Jonathas” offers far less musical and dramatic interest even than the slight but charming one-act pastorale, “Actéon”, which Charpentier wrote in 1684, four years before “David et Jonathas”.

Whatever dramatic instincts Charpentier possessed were, in “David et Jonathas”, hampered by the libretto: there is no overt drama in the work. Each of the five acts is a pure psychological portrait of one of the characters (and not a particularly penetrating portrait, at that). Nothing happens; the stage action portrays nothing more than self-examination.

Each act begins with an instrumental movement and concludes with one or more instrumental dances, between which characters sing of their sorrows in a bland stream of arioso. The blandness may be explained by the circumstances surrounding the composition: in writing for a Jesuit college, Charpentier was writing for non-professional voices with limited ranges and limited vocal techniques (scholars have speculated that one or more professional singers may have been hired for important solo roles, but the constricted vocal requirements suggest otherwise).

The Harmonia Mundi recording of “David et Jonathas”, now out-of-print (and commanding astonishing prices on the aftermarket), does the work no favors. First issued in 1988 and reissued at budget price in 1998, “David et Jonathas” is one of countless William Christie/Les Arts Florissants recordings that have come and gone over the years, capturing vapid and depth-free readings of little-known scores that require performers of genius to bring to life.

In the “David et Jonathas” recording, Christie’s conducting is too lightweight; everything bounces along agreeably, even vivaciously, but intensity and fervor and genuine emotion are lacking. Christie’s cast of singers is unremarkable if not unpleasant. There is not a major voice—or a major artist—in the lot (Jonathan is sung by a soprano, surely a miscalculation) and the listener is left with the distinct impression that the cast was assembled from a mid-level conservatory with a conspicuously-undistinguished vocal department.

Of the many Christie/Les Arts Florrisants recordings I own, “David et Jonathas” is the unmistakable loser (while Rameau’s Motets, on Erato, is the undisputed jewel, finer even than either of the Christie “Médée” recordings). [Perhaps I should note that I do not collect Christie outside French Baroque repertory.]

Listening to the recording of “David et Jonathas” was, of course, mere preparation: we caught the live performance of “David et Jonathas” in Paris a week ago Sunday. In the pit at Salle Favart were . . . Christie and Les Arts Florissants.

For us, “David et Jonathas” was not the prime attraction. For us, the attraction was an opportunity to see the interior of Salle Favart, and to experience a live performance in the fabled theater.

It was only in 2005 that the French government reassumed authority over Salle Favart, and restored the theater to its original purpose: the performance of high-quality (and heavily-subsidized) opera. The result: Salle Favart is back to its historic role, once again serving as a supplemental house to L'Opéra National de Paris and once again operating as L'Opéra Comique.

“David et Jonathas” was the only opera on the boards at L'Opéra Comique during the entire month of January, and we intended not to miss out—although we would have much preferred to catch next month’s production of “Ciboulette”, a neglected masterpiece by Reynaldo Hahn.

Salle Favart is a beautiful theater. A far cry from the overstated grandeur and excessive opulence that characterize Palais Garnier, Salle Favart is nonetheless striking and elegant in its own right (although its public spaces are cramped). The current Salle Favart opened in 1898 (the two previous theaters on the site had been destroyed by fires in, respectively, 1838 and 1887).

The theater is very intimate, and of ideal size: it accommodates 1250 patrons. Acoustics and sightlines are excellent; no seat is far from the stage.

The current structure witnessed the premieres of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” and Ravel’s “L’heure espagnole”, only two of many notable works that have received their first performances at the current Salle Favart. We found it a privilege to be in a theater that has witnessed the births of so many distinguished operas.

The Opéra-Comique stage presentation of “David et Jonathas” was a resolute disaster—although I grant there may be no way of staging “David et Jonathas” to satisfaction. The work probably should be performed in concert, and exclusively in concert; I doubt it can be made to work as a stage vehicle.

Although the work is a tragédie biblique, the Opéra-Comique staging had removed all traces of religion; “David et Jonathas” was presented as pure secular vehicle—or, more accurately, as pure romantic vehicle.

If there were intellectual underpinning to such treatment, it might be justified by noting that the original was an allegory. However, the program booklet dispensed of such niceties, focusing instead on “the unfailing friendship” of David and Jonathan and “the confrontation of communities”—and concluding that the plot of “David et Jonathas” was, fundamentally, no different than the storyline of “Romeo And Juliet” or “West Side Story”.

And such was precisely how the work was staged: as a gay “West Side Story”, set to French Baroque music—except that Sharks and Jets had been transformed into Arabs and Jews. (The director’s explanation for the latter: “the whole drama is transferred from the religious to the ethnic and intercommunity level”.)

We found it impossible not to laugh at the lunacy of it all. It was like being treated to a “Henry V” shorn of The War Of The Roses.

The stage designs and many of the stage tableaux for “David et Jonathas” had been inspired by 1940s American films, most particularly John Ford’s “The Grapes Of Wrath” and Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca”, whole scenes of which were recreated down to the original lighting schemes, complete with shadows. (Arab characters even wore the “Casablanca” fez—helpful to the audience, since the fez was the only surefire way to distinguish Arab from Jew.)

A different Curtiz film received a striking hommage in one notable scene: a tableau in which a large group of women appeared, all wearing waitress uniforms identical to that worn by Joan Crawford while working her first waitress job (the one in which Eve Arden served as her supervisor) in “Mildred Pierce”.

Upon appearance of the waitresses, we started laughing uncontrollably. It became impossible for us to take anything seriously thereafter, and we became lost for the remainder of the performance. The “Mildred Pierce” reenactment positively sent us over the edge.

There are no female characters in the original “David et Jonathas”—but that consideration carried no weight with those who had devised this particular production. In fact, the Opéra-Comique “David et Jonathas” featured women all over the stage. One of the livelier characters in this “David et Jonathas” was David’s mother, a mime role. The actress miming the part chewed up the scenery relentlessly throughout all five acts, and might as well have been participating in some bumptious 1960s television game show, so over-the-top were her antics. She reminded me of Kaye Ballard.

Numerous mimes were in use throughout the entire performance. There was no dancing in the many instrumental dance numbers; all were used for the presentation of mime: elaborate mime, head-shaking mime, gruesome mime, all of it unintentionally hilarious.

To be blunt, I cannot imagine who approved this deplorable presentation in its planning stages. Charpentier’s serious and studied examination of friendship, devotion and loyalty—religious, political and personal—was turned into a catalog of mindless and tasteless present-day European clichés, including the requisite anti-Semitism now fashionable in European capitals.

One of Pauline Kael’s most memorable pithy dismissals was “Unfunny camp is contemptible”. Kael’s famous line might as well have been invented for what we saw at Salle Favart. The Paris “David et Jonathas” was nothing if not camp, and it was nothing if not unfunny—and it was indeed contemptible to its core.

This “David et Jonathas” production had premiered last summer at the Aix-En-Provence Festival, which explains much: camp, intentional or no, is generally the prevailing outcome of anything that has emerged from Aix-En-Provence for more than a decade.

The Aix-En-Provence “David et Jonathas” was a co-production with L'Opéra Comique and Théâtre de Caen (the latter is the home theater of Les Arts Florissants). The production has already traveled to the Edinburgh Festival and is due to be presented at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music in April. A DVD of the production is scheduled to be released in coming months.

Hearing Christie perform the score live only reinforced my earlier belief, acquired after acquainting myself with the old Christie recording: Christie is the wrong man for “David et Jonathas”. Even after the passage of a quarter-century, Christie still has not learned how to realize the work.

The score simply does not come alive in Christie’s hands. Under Christie’s leadership, “David et Jonathas” sounds vacuous, and uninteresting, and lifeless, and unserious, and lacking in spirituality.

If a musician cannot find spirituality in “David et Jonathas”, he probably should leave the score unperformed.

Christie, incomprehensibly, reordered the opera, inserting the Prologue between Acts III and IV. This was done, I believe, in order to get the second half off to a flying start. The Prologue features the Pythoness, the only scene-stealing role in the entire work, and veteran singer Dominique Visse, a vulgar and shameless old ham, made an absolute meal of the part—despite having no voice left. Visse was simultaneously riveting as well as embarrassing; he received the most genuine and sustained applause of the performance.

As in his recording, Christie used a female Jonathan, a reiteration of his misjudgment from 25 years ago. As in his recording, Christie’s singers were, without exception, not worth hearing “on the merits”. It was depressing, having to endure almost three hours of sub-par vocalism that would never be tolerated in El Paso.

Christie is a grossly-overrated figure. He was wise to stake a claim to repertory left untouched and unheard for three centuries, and to defend that repertory as his own personal property, tenaciously fending off all challengers and interlopers for more than three decades. Christie may have been blessed with only modest talent, but it cannot be denied that the man has made a series of very smart career moves.

The Harmonia Mundi disc shop on Avenue de l'Opéra is still open, which surprised me greatly; I would have thought it defunct by now, given the worldwide collapse in disc sales. Even FNAC has been forced to close its exceptional—and near-comprehensive—music store near L'Opéra Bastille. Yet the small Harmonia Mundi shop in central Paris doggedly and inexplicably hangs on—just like William Christie.

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