Charpentier’s David et Jonathas (1688)
Act IV, to war with David leading the Philistines and Jonathan expounding on love vs duty; and Act V does the deaths of everyone who matters, except of course our hero who is destroyed in other ways. The Prologue recounts the meeting of Saul with the Pythonisse (biblical Witch of Endor, haute- contre) and the ghost of Samuel (bass). Edward Pienado writes: Musically, David and Jonathan is original in its concept and language, and it departs, significantly, from the official model of French court opera. The work emphasizes psychological and personal aspects of the characters (all of whom would have been interpreted by male voices). Each act focuses on a single character, spotlighting the humanity and intimacy of the drama. The main themes of love, duty, and obedience are wonderfully expressed throughout by Charpentier's masterful use tonality and tone color, as well as by his unique ability to illuminate the Latin text with the most telling emotion. The opera is based on the story of King Saul,  his son Jonathan, and David the slayer of (and later general of) the Philistines, then as now fighting territorial wars with the Israelites. The only account of all this is in 1 Samuel.

An operatic psychodrama

Politics and devotional religion combine in this remarkable opera/oratorio. Conservatives can see in the libretto of  François Bretonneau SJ the duty of obedience to God and the king by divine right. Others may see in the madness of Saul, the first Israelite king, the problem of dealing with an unhinged leader. (This dual perspective is perhaps more obvious in Handel’s Saul, which we’ll look at later.) Like all operas of the time, it consists of five acts and an allegorical prologue, as we saw with Monteverdi. Each act focuses on one of the characters: Act I is David (haute-contre tenor i.e. very high tenor, not falsetto), Act II introduces the wicked (of course) Philistine general Joabel (tenor), and Act III is Saul (baritone) and his rages.


The original production by Charpentier who may have sung David and the Pythonisse, was in Paris in 1688, with successful reprises in subsequent years. Les Arts Florissants revived it in 1988 to great critical acclaim. The production, directed by Andreas Homoki and conducted by William Christie, sets the action ambiguously in 20th century Europe. The production has toured quite widely - its presentation in Brooklyn in 2013 is backgrounded  by Marina Harss, and reviewed and analysed in depth by Geoffrey O’Brien for the New York Review of Books. We will look at excerpts from a 2012 performance of this production in Aix-en- Provence. It is reviewed in Bachtrack and the DVD from it (the only one of this opera) in Presto Classical.  Sydney’s wonderful Pinchgut Opera staged it in 2008 with the Orchestra of the Antipodes under Antony Walker and Sara Mcliver as Jonathan - a truly memorable production. Read their account of the production with excerpts and reviews.