'David' Slays a Grand Ambition

Jason Buckwalter and Kristen Dubenion-Smith rehearse for American Opera Theater's
Jason Buckwalter and Kristen Dubenion-Smith rehearse for American Opera Theater's "David et Jonathas." (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008

There is such a thing as having too much talent, energy and ambition. Timothy Nelson epitomizes the problem.

Nelson, 28, is the founder, conductor and stage director of the American Opera Theater, which is taking its production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "David et Jonathas" -- a rarely done baroque work that played at Georgetown over the weekend -- to the Brooklyn Academy of Music next week. It is laudable that Nelson has gotten his company off the ground and all the way to BAM, but this prominence is not going to do him any favors, for his production is not quite ready for prime time.

"David et Jonathas" is a tricky piece: It was written in 1688 as a sequence of musical scenes to be interspersed with a spoken narrative, and the spoken narrative has been lost, leaving the opera with a lot of music and very little plot. One major flaw of Nelson's production is that he opts not to address that issue at all.

"No attempt is made to clarify traditional markers of plot," he writes in his program note. The resulting evening feels as if he had simply taken the score and done what was necessary to get it onstage, without a lot of consideration about the overall effect. The whole thing feels rushed and a little slapdash, from the decent playing of the orchestra -- actually the strongest part of the show -- to such amateurish moments as having parts of the supertitles obscured by gratuitous bits of hanging fabric.

The other main flaw is that the singers simply aren't very good. Conventional early-music wisdom calls for straight-toned voices without vibrato; but the voices ought to be audible, and they ought not to sound painfully strained. A couple of members of Friday's cast showed that it was possible to sing well in this context: Rebecca Duren, as a piping, boyish Jonathas, and Emily Noël, whose strikingly lovely voice made her an incongruous standout in the five-person "petit choeur" responsible for most of what little stage business there was.

Nelson did have some good ideas, like casting the chorus as burqa-clad prisoners of war, faceless shapes behind a barbed-wire fence. He also resorted to some cliches, like putting the cast's best-looking physical specimen onstage without a shirt: Jason Buckwalter, as Saul, would have a great career if musculature alone were a guarantee of operatic success (and these days, some might say it is). But it was hard to hear him. The frustrating thing was that his voice wasn't terrible; he just didn't seem to understand how to use it.

There was a lot of potential amassed onstage Friday night, but of course, potential alone is not enough to carry an evening. From the evidence of this show, the one thing that Nelson lacks is a mentor or editor -- someone to help him test and prove his ideas before trying to thrust them prematurely onto a stage that is almost certainly going to prove too big for them.

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