I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan. Very pleasant hast thou been unto me. Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
This touching lament, from the Second Book of Samuel in the Old Testament, is delivered by King David upon learning that his friend had died in a battle between the Israelites and the Philistines.
Those seeking biblical acceptance for same-sex relationships obviously can read much into it, while even those who insist there is nothing remotely romantic in this expression of love by one man for another may find it hard to dismiss the poetic power of the words.
In 1688, the intense friendship between David and Jonathan, son of Saul, was addressed in the form of an opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
One of the 17th century's greatest French composers, Charpentier is best known today for his richly melodic, exquisitely expressive choral works, which rank among the glories of the baroque era. His works for the stage deserve much wider recognition.
Toward that end, Ignoti Dei Opera, an ambitious company founded a few years ago by Peabody Conservatory grad Timothy Nelson, will present the local premiere of Charpentier's David et Jonathas this month. More than a local premiere, probably.
"It has never been staged anywhere in this country, to my knowledge," Nelson says. "There have only been some concert presentations." There are no currently available recordings of the piece.
Plot stripped away
David et Jonathas was only part of the show when it had its premiere Feb. 28, 1688, at a Jesuit college in Paris. The five acts of the opera - two hours worth of music, sung in French - alternated in performance with another five acts of a play on the same basic subject called Saul, delivered in Latin.
This interspersing of spoken drama and opera was a tradition at the college, so, presumably, the opera's first audience had no problem sitting for long, long stretches.
Because Charpentier knew that he was writing for this dual experience, he didn't bother with lots of plot or recitative (the dialogue-like portion of an opera that connects arias and ensemble numbers). Instead, much of his opera reflects on the emotional and what, from our perspective, might be considered psychological elements of the story. There is little action in the piece; the action came principally from the play.
Producing an opera without conventional plot-driving elements presents the first of several challenges posed by David et Jonathas.
"That's what excited me about doing this," Nelson says. "It seemed really postmodern to take the opera out of the [play]. I love theater of the absurd, anyway, and there isn't much opera you can do like that."
Not that Ignoti Dei Opera's staging will be entirely static. "We've put in a lot of stylized movement and gesture for the chorus that verges on dance," Nelson says. "It's a real visual production." (A real visceral one, too, if Nelson successfully carries out a plan to cover the stage of the Theatre Project with 2 1/2 tons of sand.)
Trying to maintain flow in the opera is one problem; finding the right voices to sing it is another. The role of Jonathan is particularly high, most likely written originally for a boy soprano (at the Jesuit school, only boys and men would have performed the opera).
It's possible to find boy sopranos who can handle Jonathan's music, but it would be problematic to stage the piece today with a boy Jonathan and an adult David, who sings such lines as "Despite the harshness of my fate, at least I can still tell you that I love you" and "My solicitude has not been able to protect the dearest object of my desires from a cruel death."
A more likely solution is a time-tested one in the opera world - casting a female soprano in a male role.
Nelson rejected both options, searching instead for adult male singers who could meet the opera's musical and theatrical needs. "We found an amazing countertenor for Jonathan," Nelson says. "His natural speaking voice is an alto, and [when he sings] he can go quite high."
Charpentier wrote the role of David for a kind of singer in French music called an haute-contre, something of a cross between high tenor and countertenor. "That's not the easiest voice type to find in the States," Nelson says. "We have an incredible countertenor from Paris who has a true contralto range."
Helping to attract singers to Baltimore for the project was a month-long program Nelson launched this summer to provide experience in early opera. Peabody Opera Theatre facilities were made available for master classes, coaching and preliminary rehearsals for the Charpentier production. Hosts were found to house participants in the program.
"We did a good amount of fund-raising this year," Nelson says. "I expect to make the rest of the [approximately $12,000] budget from ticket sales. The singers aren't paid, but the orchestra is."
That orchestra of 15 players, specializing in period instruments, includes musicians from Europe and the East Coast.
As demonstrated last year with its imaginative staging of Cavalli's La Calisto, Ignoti Dei Opera can produce early music with considerable flair and attention to historically authentic style. With David et Jonathas, however, getting an appropriate sound may be much easier than setting the right tone. The work's subject matter cannot help but be controversial.
"I don't know for sure how the opera was first understood," Nelson says, "but I've talked to cultural historians who told me that they are pretty confident that 17th-century French audiences would not have seen a sexual relationship between Jonathan and David. But I don't think a modern audience can see two men make such overt declarations of love without drawing that conclusion."
For Nelson, who will have an actor read the biblical verses about David and Jonathan as a prelude to the opera, the nature of the story is plain.
"I have embraced the fact that David and Jonathan are lovers," the director says, "but, to put it crassly, I tried hard not to 'gay it up' in the production. This is a tender and tragic love story of two men, not tragic because of their sexuality, but circumstances common to so many male-female love stories."
By shining a rare light on Charpentier's David et Jonathas, Nelson is not only confronting an emotional issue with contemporary relevance, but, perhaps more than anything else, is reconfirming the artistic worth of a neglected gem.
"The opera has gorgeous music," he says. "It's just breathtaking."
'David et Jonathas'
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
When: 8 p.m., Aug. 25-27; 3 p.m., Aug. 28
Tickets: $30; $22 for students and seniors
Call: 410-752-8558, or go online to missiontix.com
What: Baroque Music Benefit Recital
When: Aug. 20; 7 p.m.
Where: An Die Musik, 409 N.Charles St. Baltimore, Md. 21201
Tickets: $15; $10 for students.