On trial in 1895 for acts of "gross indecency," Oscar Wilde was asked to define "the Love that dare not speak its name."
He described it as "such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare."
The love is "so much misunderstood," Wilde said, that the "world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it."
If Wilde's jury had been able to hear a 1688 opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier about the intense love of David and Jonathan, there just might have been an acquittal.
But encountering that opera in late-Victorian London would have been as difficult as it was in this country until just last week, when Charpentier's David et Jonathas received, at long last, what is believed to be its U.S. stage premiere at the Theatre Project.
Charpentier, a leading light of French baroque music, is known mostly for his sacred works, but his contributions to the theater were considerable. David et Jonathas amply demonstrates that, even though it is nearly devoid of conventional action. (It was written to be interspersed with a five-act spoken drama that did the plot-driving.)
With remarkable skill and conviction, Ignoti Dei Opera, a company formed in Baltimore in 2003 to explore early operas, tackled David et Jonathas from an unapologetic, 21st-century perspective. As if to underline how much the world has changed since Wilde stood in the dock, the production viewed the subject matter without any religious or societal filters.
Here, David and Jonathan were lovers, plain and simple, threatened by Jonathan's father, Saul, and an intractable fate.
Momentous issues surround these biblical figures, of course, but Charpentier's opera keeps everything human-scaled.
When David tends to his dying friend, for example, the pain is personal, not symbolic. And this scene, set to music of immense beauty, couldn't be more straight-to-the-heart. Framed by cries of "Alas!" from the chorus, the passage is, in its own way, as noble as anything by Wagner, as emotionally wrenching as anything by Puccini.
Warm-voiced countertenor Brian Cummings (David) and intrepid "male soprano" Matthew Walker (Jonathan) reached particular eloquence in that long death scene of Act V during Sunday afternoon's final performance. Walker, whose voice needed more tonal and technical refining, nonetheless made Jonathan's lament in Act IV deeply moving as well.
Jason Buckwater's Saul was solidly sung and etched with theatrical fire. The rest of the cast did vibrant work.
Ignoti Dei Opera founder Timothy Nelson directed and designed this essentially abstract, postmodern production, played out on a stage covered with about 2 tons of sand. (Everyone, including the musicians along the side walls, went barefoot.)
Nelson sent characters whirling around or had them make stylized hand gestures once too often, but he achieved some striking stage pictures along the way with the help of lighting designer Kel Millionie.
The star of the venture was the orchestra of period instruments, led by Adam Pearl. A little roughness aside, the playing had authority, while the subtle tapestry of aural colors added an arrestingly expressive dimension to the performance.