Something Rich and Strange
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 05/04/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Before you listen to Charpentier's operatic oratorio "Mors Saülis et Jonathae", I recommend reviewing the story of King Saul, beginning with Samuel I:15 in the Jewish/Christian Bible. It's one of the morally most detestable tales in scripture. Saul is identified as G_d's favorite, installed as KIng of Israel, and issued the commandment to make war on the Philistine city of Amalek, to level the city and kill all its inhabitants, and to destroy all their goods and cattle. Saul does sack the city. He does slay all the Amalekites, women and children included. But he doesn't destroy all the cattle; instead he saves the finest sheep and cows, and herds them to the Prophet Samuel, with the idea of making them a 'holocaust', a burnt offering. Samuel rebukes him for not obeying the Lord's commandment to the letter. Later, when Samuel is dead and Saul is at war with David as well as the Philistines, Saul finds that nothing he does succeeds. He turns to magic, to a witch who has a 'python' - a 'familiar spirit' in the King James translation. The witch is able to raise Samuel from the Underworld. Samuel tells Saul that he has forever lost G_d's favor because of his disobedience regarding Amalek. Saul also learns that his son Jonathan has been slain. Saul calls upon a soldier to kill him so that he will not be humiliated by capture. After resisting this order, the soldier does kill the king. He then rushes to tell David that Saul is dead. David declares that, since the soldier dared to raise his sword against royalty of any sort, his life is forfeit.
That's the story told in the oratorio, which features eight voices as both soloists and chorus, plus flutes, violins, and continuo. The music is quite exotic and colorful, with martial strains and 'symphonies of enchantment.' Haut-contre Gerard Lesne sings the role of the Witch in the first act, using a weird reedy timbre doubled by reed stops on the organ, an extremely eerie sound. Then he sings the role of the unfortunate soldier in the second act, in his normal expressive alto/tenor range. Bass Ronan Nédélec also excels in the role of the doomed ex-favorite Saul.
The second oratorio tells the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, another Biblical horror story with essentially the same lesson, of unquestioning submission to the divine will. The duets between Abraham (tenor Jean-François Novelli) and Isaac (Lesne) are spectacularly sweet. The third composition is not at all a typical oratorio; it's a dialogue between two choruses, of angels and of shepherds, concerning an offering to the Baby Jesus.
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) is usually credited with launching the development of the French oratorio, based on his visit to Rome in the 1660s, where he heard the music of Giacomo Carissimi. In fact, the impetus behind the oratorio came from the intellectual circles of the Counter-Reformation, and even more precisely from one congregation, the Confraternity of the Holy Crucifixion, in its chapel (oratory) at the Curch of San Marcello. But however Italianate the origins of French Baroque music, the distinctive vocal styles of composers like Charpentier, Brossard, Lully, and Dumont soon made their compositions unlike those of any other European country, in grands et petits motets and in operas as well as oratorios.
Gerard Lesne's ensemble, Il Seminario Musicale, is so consistently brilliant in the performance of both French and Italian Baroque masterworks that the name alone constitutes a five-star performance guarantee. This CD will not disappoint you; it's bold, colorful, and entertaining, despite the grim lessons of its texts."