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The Angelic Voices of David and Jonathas

The Dresser hesitates to say any musical group could sound like angels (after all, doesn't one have to be dead to know this sound?) but because she now has a rudimentary understanding of baroque versus standard tuning thanks to her friend Janet Peachey, the Dresser will venture into deep waters to make this assertion.


On May 2, 2008, American Opera Theater, currently in residence at Georgetown University, presented the first fully staged North American production of David and Jonathas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier with libretto by Père François Bretonneau. The work, originally interwoven with a spoken drama in Latin entitled Saul by Père Etienne Chamillard and first performed in 1688 for the Jesuit Le College Louis-le-grand in Paris, tells the Biblical love story between David (slayer of Goliath and Bathsheba wife-stealer) and Jonathan, son of King Saul of Israel.
The driving force behind American Opera Theater, originally named Ignoti Dei Opera, is Timothy Nelson who is the AOT artistic director. Nelson's production cuts out the spoken drama to provide a sung-through work that is enlivened by appealing tableau vivant staging and semi-dance/body movement styling and heavenly musical interludes on period instruments.

Now, back to this deep-water assertion about the music of angels. Janet's theory, which she explained to me mathematically (starting with Pythagoras' two-to-one tuning theory that involves octaves), boils down to this: modern tuning is slightly flat, but eventually that flatness is compensated for in Pythagoras' math. [NOTE: See Janet Peachey's comment below. While modern tuning is slightly flat, baroque tuning adheres to what might be heard as pure intervals versus the modern tuning which offers tempered intervals of tone.] Baroque tuning achieves a perfection of sound by avoiding certain keys and therefore sounds more harmonious than standard tuning. However, music created by baroque "perfect pitch" tuning is much more limited than music played with the standard "relative pitch" tuning.

In addition to this specialized tuning, set on the key of A at 415 cycles per second (we talked to baroque violinist Andrew Fouts who confirmed this lower pitch tuning versus the A440 tuning used in most modern concert tunings), the 230-seat Gonda Theatre in the Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University provided an intimacy that made the Dresser and her friend feel bathed in the music in a way that was energizing and what the Dresser would call healing. This was especially apparent at the end of the opera when the full chorus, divided in half, sang from both sides at the back of the auditorium.


To take one's breath away (even as it was restored by the perfect-pitch tuning and acoustically satisfying Gonda Theatre) was the singing of countertenor Brian Cummings as David and soprano Rebecca Duren as Jonathas. Nelson has emphasized the sensual and sexual side of this story, which may not have had this gay relationship interpretation when Charpentier and Bretonneau presented this piece for the Parisian Jesuits. Dare the Dresser mention that in Charpentier's day, countertenor roles were usually roles for castrati, which probably put another slant on male relationships that we don't think about today. For the Dresser as she watched the barefooted cast, the figures of Cummings (boyish, slim, and tall) and Duren (childishly androgynous and petite) in combination with their high-pitched voices provided a sexual sublimeness that transcended gender. In short, the Dresser didn't care if these were two male characters or a mix of male and females actors playing males. The love story moved above the who's-who body orientation.

The Dresser should also pause here to note that she has been swept up before in the heavenly sound of baroque opera such as hearing Ann Hoyt sing Venus in John Blow's Venus and Adonis with the Rebel Baroque Orchestra, but at that time she didn't have the benefit of Janet Peachey's tutorial about what makes baroque music, especially that music played by period instruments, so appealing. As it turns out, the Dresser engaged in conversation last night with John Moran, a Rebel viola da gamba musician, who attended David and Jonathas, to not only witness this fine production but to also hear his wife violinist Risa Browder. The world of early and baroque music is an awesome but small community.


Craig Lemming as the Philistine general Joabel delivered a notable singing and acting performance. Joabel's hatred against Saul, which David did not share, was palpably felt by Lemming's performance. Lemming as Joabel vented this hatred to David, practically spitting his venom. Particularly pleasing was the pastoral scene that turned love to violent capture and enslavement. The Petit Choeur of Bonnie McNaughton, Matthew Heil, Kristen Dubenion-Smith (she also gave an outstanding delivery of La Pythonisse, the witch of Endor who in the Prologue forecasts Saul's demise and the death of his son Jonathas) was led in the pastoral scene by Emily Noel and Colin Levin (he also played the menacing Ombre de Samuel--the ghost of Samuel, the Biblical storyteller responsible for the story of David and Jonathas). [NOTE: Correction was made here about who led the pastoral scene.] The Dresser also loved the Petit Choeur's skillful fight/dance scene done with red flags.

Scenically striking was the Grand Choeur of twelve singers enveloped in black burkhas who initially wore white death masks and performed an eerie dance that made them look like they were robes unpopulated by beings with bones. This faceless dark dozen (the masks were gone and veils covered all faces) sat for most of the opera behind a fence of barbed wire, conjuring simultaneously every cultural animosity currently at work in the Middle East today. Other notable costumes included white peasant style pants and tops for the Petit Choeur and Jonathas. King Saul wore a red sarong with a bare chest that has a stripe of blood (or so the Dresser assumes). Saul, with his long hair and thin diadem, looked like a martyred Christ figure.

If the Dresser has any complaints, they are only these two things. In the Prologue section of the opera, she could not read the surtitles because long thin banners hanging from the ceiling blurred them. However, reading the English translation of the French text overall did not matter that much. The enunciation by the singers was mostly understandable (of course, knowing a few words of French helps) and most of the spare lines of text were sung more than once. The other complaint was that occasionally glaring lights from an upstage location were pointed at the audience in an attempt to silhouette certain characters.

And maybe this is a complaint too--Jonathas' slow death in David's arms caused a torrent of tears to run down the Dresser's cheeks.
David's lament "Has so faithful and tender a love ever had such a sad fate" is followed by his meaningless coronation (out came the natural trumpet, a valveless instrument played masterfully by Kris Kwapis Ingles--The Dresser loved the way Ms. Ingles lurked in the wings and made occasional appearances to play). Not only has the beloved Jonathas died, but so has the rather bedraggled Saul, making David king as the vanquisher. This scene in particular speaks to what Timothy Nelson refers to in his program notes about Albert Camus' Myth of Sisyphus. For Nelson, love and war define two states of the absurdities associated with the human condition.


After three performances Georgetown University, David and Jonathas moves to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for two more performances May 9 and 10. Look for more offerings by American Opera Theater starting in the fall of 2008 when they will produce Le Cabaret de Carmen (Peter Sellars' acclaimed rendering of Bizet's opera), Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg's Hydrogen Jukebox (January 2009), and Handel' Acis and Galatea. What the Dresser particularly likes about Timothy Nelson is his focus on reaching out to young audiences. Read Nelson blog Yugen to find out more about his philosophy of opera theater. David and Jonathas vibrates with imagery and emotional content that should appeal to an audience who color their hair bright blue and pink to make a political statement and not to enliven gray locks.

Heddy Reid's poem "Trying to Remember" makes the Dresser think of the passionate kiss between David and Jonathas that also marks that they must separate. David believes Jonathas must respect his father's wishes to lose David and that the reality is David and Jonathas will end up on the same battlefield as enemies. So here, Dear Reader, the Dresser leaves you in the deep waters of the human condition.


I am swimming without a lifejacket.
Memory is the lifejacket,

but it's over there
on the shore. I'm in over my head

with nothing holding me up.
Flailing. Tiring. Not a word

spirals into my head now.
Everything we said last week

that made my knees go to jelly, made
my mind white hot, is lost somewhere,

and the lifejacket's on the shore
just when I need it. Why? Why?

Is it because if I could remember
what I said, what we said,

other memories would swarm too,
furious as wasps when a rock hits their nest?

by Heddy Reid
from A Far Cry

Copyright © 2007 by Heddy Reid


Comments (7)


I was at the performance of David et Jonathas last night (Saturday) and am happy to report that the issue with the surtitles in the prologue had seemingly been resolved. We had no trouble seeing them!
And one other correction: I am certain that it was soprano Emily Noel that led the pastoral scene with Colin Levin. I believe Ms. Dubenion-Smith is an alto.

We are blessed by The Dresser's vision.

Janet Peachey:

Good article, and what a fast turnaround! Thanks for the link to my

A note of caution: the terms "perfect pitch" and "relative pitch"
usually have a different meaning than the way you used them in your
article. People with "perfect pitch" or "absolute pitch" have the
ability to identify any pitch they hear by name, without reference to
other pitches. People with "relative pitch" are able to discern
which pitches are being played or sung by hearing the intervals
between the notes and using a known pitch or pitches as a point of
reference. Most people, including many excellent musicians, have
"relative pitch." If a musician with relative pitch hears, for
example, the A that musicians tune to, and then someone plays a B,
the musician will be able to identify the second note as a B because
it sounds a whole step above the A. Someone who knows about acoustics would probably figure out what you meant by "perfect" and "relative." But it would be better to use terms like "pure" intervals versus "tempered" intervals, or "just intonation" versus "equal
temperament." I thought as I went to sleep Friday night that I should
email you to make sure you had the right terminology since it's hard
to absorb all that when you're sitting in a car. But I obviously
didn't get it done before you wrote your article.

One more thing -- in your article you said "that flatness is
compensated for in Pythagoras's math." Pythagoras and other ancient
mathematicians never attempted to compensate for the discrepancy;
they either never recognized it or ignored it, since they were hung
up on the perfection of "heavenly" proportions. (did I mention to you
that these proportions were also used in Greek & Roman architecture, as well as in the construction of cathedrals in Europe). It was a kind of numerology with which ancient Greeks (and by extension, medieval Europeans) were obsessed, and it formed the basis of various disciplines: mathematics, music, astronomy. Remember Plato's "music of the spheres?" This was the perfect, "heavenly" music that was completely in sync with the "natural" mathematical proportions and the movement of the planets. Before Kepler (17th century) discovered that planets move in elliptical orbits, it was believed that planets moved in perfectly circular orbits in "perfect" mathematical proportions.

It was during the Renaissance that the problem of tuning
discrepancies became such a large elephant in the room that it
couldn't be ignored any more. For several hundred years various
solutions were attempted before the modern solution of equal
temperament was implemented in the 18th century. Even today there are dissenters who insist that tempered intervals don't sound as pure as pure ones, and who assert that equal temperament destroyed music. Hearing that opera the other night, I could almost be convinced they are right. What a wonderful experience, to be bathed in such glorious music! (But of course I don't want to give up my freedom to compose using all the modern pitch relationships that are available to me.)

This is a fascinating topic, and I'd love to tell you more about it.
There are, of course, books about it, but there's no substitute for
actually seeing and hearing the relationships you get when strings of
various lengths vibrate.

Tim Nelson:

Kristen Dubenion-Smith did not lead the pastoral scene, it is true, but you should know that she also played the "Witch" or "La Pythonisse" in the prologue...a lot of people didn't realize!

The Dresser:

What the Dresser loves about blogs is the opportunity to learn from one's mistakes. I think what Tim Nelson and American Opera Theater are doing is an important contribution to the future of opera and I hope that what I have written will further their accomplishments.


Has this performance been recorded?
Is the recording been released for sale?

The Dresser:

While there may be a French recording of Charpentier's opera, it may be hard to get at a price ordinary folks can afford. Try a university library where there is a school of music to hear the work. Googling shows Amazon has sellers offering a used albums at prices exceeding $100. That seems like a scam to the Dresser who knows that her own books in used copies have been offered on Amazon at ridiculous prices.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 3, 2008 1:10 PM.

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