For some truly blessed academics, scholarship is a lifelong love affair with a particular writer, poet, musician, historical figure, etc., or simply one project calling out to be delved into deeply and thoroughly. For Zoe Weiss and Dylan Sauerwald, revising and writing continuo for a working edition of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas was such a labor of love, and last night, on Thursday January 26th at the First Congregational Church in Cambridge, a lucky audience got to enjoy the fruits of those efforts. In the age of online facsimile, without having to travel, wonderful things are possible for scholars. Through the IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project), Weiss had access to an original source from which to carefully construct her own edition while Dylan Sauerwald wrote continuo. This is their first full-scale production.
Sauerwald and Weiss wrote in their program letter of introduction, “We use period instruments, but modern staging because we feel that the music is best served by the instruments for which it was written and that the drama is best served by staging that resonates with our audience.” The orchestra was of ample size, with a luxurious collection of period instruments played by Boston’s notable and richly talented community of early musicians, while indeed, the stage and costumes were minimalist and sparse — the cast dressed in black with key players wearing colored sashes, while a suspended silk parachute picking up the light of a modern, fluorescent color-wheel provided a backdrop, and a small platform and multi-purpose throne situated upstage served for a set. The warmly renovated interior of the church with a hint of frankincense still lingering in the air provided the right atmosphere.
The first act begins with a battle beautifully staged by Fight Choreographer (and Stage Manager!) Kateri Chambers. Although the libretto is a love story between two soldiers, and the primary action of the story centers on war, all battles are dance-like pantomimes among choristers with only the protagonist and antagonist bearing real arms, which are never used for actual fencing. Such is the nature of a low-budget production, but although this approach may sound questionable in written description, it was a working and highly effective solution to training a co-ed cast to present themselves as warriors. It would have been more effective if more members of the cast had been better able to move like warriors, but one of the great challenges of opera performance is putting the kind of time into stage movement that is demanded of singers just to master their instruments in addition to words and diction in a foreign language. And then there’s the music!
Jake Cooper, as Saul, King of Israel, is a powerful baritone whose role demands displays of passionate anger and jealousy. His singing was strong and expressive, but as an actor, his bodily movements onstage wanted for focus. One of the great pitfalls of operatic acting is the way in which long orchestral phrases interspersed between vocal ones are a recipe for leaving the singing-actor feeling “hung out to dry.” It appears Mr. Cooper struggles in this capacity for a sense of emotional and thus physical direction, but if he were to gather his posture with calm, still dramatic intent, he would be a charismatic force onstage who looks as professional as he sounds.
One of the great joys of this performance as an audience member was the pleasure of hearing a stunningly beautiful ensemble with impeccable intonation, both instrumentally and vocally, with such moving sensitivity to the early operatic French style. Given that this style calls for minimal vibrato and leaning delicately against ornamental appoggiaturas, young singers are often especially suited for this music. But there was an element of disparity in vocal power between the leads and smaller roles — some of these roles required stronger voices. Sophie Michaux had a more commanding presence and posture as a warrior than any other chorister, and made an equally graceful and mesmerizing masked sorceress. Her musicianship in the role of La Pythonisse was excellent, but the acoustical problems with the venue in which anything blocked upstage under the dome was easily lost, did not do justice to her lighter contralto voice. James Dargon’s Ghost of Samuel, a strong performance, also experienced acoustical difficulties.
Keith Lam as Achis, and Marcio de Oliveira as Joadab, possessed lighter voices, but with great stage presence. Lam was extremely memorable for having tremendous poise onstage and especially beautiful facial expression. Mr. de Oliveira, although smaller in stature for a warrior, sang his role as villainous traitor with fiery enthusiasm.
The highlight of this production, a most stunning performance in every way, was given by Mr. Owen McIntosh as David. Stylistically impeccable, beautiful to watch and possessing an athletic physique, his strong yet sweet tenor voice executed Charpentier’s exquisitely inspired phrases with deeply sensitive musicianship. He was the center piece of this production, and as a sought-after artist in the Boston area, he is ready to move up into the next level of what promises to be an exceptional career. People should hear him now while he is still a relatively hidden treasure. Linda Tsatsanas as Jonathas had a strong voice, comparable in power to McIntosh’s, and very musical in her solo work, but stylistically not as nuanced in her sensitivity to the French style, and her physical movements and facial expressions were less compelling.
Praise must be given lastly regarding the overall musicianship of the chorus , which was highly polished both in ensemble and intonation. Weiss elongated the appoggiaturas in places to capitalize on their dissonances, in alignment with practices she observed in other Charpentier works. The overall effect was dazzling and not to be missed. Of the many fine chorister soloists, let me single out Claire Raphaelson. Although a gentler, softer singer, she had an exceptionally lovely tone quality, and sensitivity to the music as well as stage presence, and Erika Vogel, for her notable duet in Act I.
Overall, the simplicity that Director Aria Umezawa brought to the staging of this opera was visually beautiful. Sauerwald and Weiss stated in their introduction that the story of David and Jonathas “captivated [them as]…powerfully relevant to today’s audience, particularly to the younger generations.” It is a love story between two men in the tradition of Greek tragedy, and prophetically, in the Romantic ilk of public duty and political upheaval trumping private fulfillment and leaving the individual spiritually bankrupt. It is a production done artfully and with great care that should not be missed. It would certainly be a tragedy if there were any vacant seats tonight.