August 2012 Edinburgh production of 'David et Jonathas'

A recent review in the New York Times makes a bizarre claim about a baroque opera by a 17th century composer known for his religious music: the opera, the review states, is really an ancient entry in a “gay civil rights movement.” And you thought it was all about a Bible story.

The Times review concerns David et Jonathas,  by the French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier with libretto by François Bretonneau, in a recent performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Times reviewer, Anthony Tommasini, describes the opera as “beautiful and courageous.”

The beauty, Tommasini avers, is evident in the music and libretto, and the courage is in two men in 1688 writing an opera celebrating homosexuality: “Historians of the gay civil rights movement will now have to add two unlikely names to their list of pioneers.”

Really? A 17th century composer known particularly for his sacred vocal and choral music wrote a peaen to homosexuality?

Well, not exactly. Here’s how Tommasini describes it:

The opera, first performed at a Jesuit college in Paris in 1688, is based on the biblical relationship between the young David, the future king of Israel, and Jonathas (Jonathan), the Israelite prince and son of King Saul. In the Books of Samuel the bond between these young men is never made explicit. But in the opera David and Jonathas are clearly in love, however chaste their relationship may be. This comes through in the humane and powerful performance by the acclaimed Baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants, splendidly conducted by William Christie.

Objections become apparent almost immediately. Tommasini claims that “the bond between these two young men is never made explicit” in the Bible. But that’s silly: the Bible makes it perfectly clear that they’re very close friends. That is enough to explain their relationship. No implication of homosexuality is made in the biblical account, and it is rather ludicrous to think that the writer of Samuel would not see the breaking of one of God’s laws, as given in Deuteronomy and elsewhere, as important enough to mention explicitly. It is not as if the Bible were generally reticent about mentioning such lawbreaking; quite the contrary, in fact.

That David and Jonathan were close in the Bible is evident. But it is quite telling that in the account in the Second Book of Samuel, upon hearing of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in battle, David always mentions both together, and always mentions Saul first:

1:5 David said to the young man who told him, “How do you know that Saul and Jonathan his son are dead?”


1:17 David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and over Jonathan his son

If David were romantically in love with Jonathan, certainly Jonathan would rate some sort of separate comment by David in this crucial exchange. Imagine, if you will, that a man’s wife and father-in-law are killed at the same time. Would the man mention the father-in-law first and in the same tones as his wife? Not hardly. He’d say something on the order of, “What? My wife is dead?”, not, “What, my father-in-law and wife are dead?”

David’s lamentation over the two men’s deaths likewise mentions Saul first and is of particular interest regarding the claim of homosexuality:

“Your glory, Israel, is slain on your high places! How the mighty have fallen! . . . The shield of Saul was not anointed with oil. 1:22 From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, Jonathan’s bow didn’t turn back. Saul’s sword didn’t return empty. 1:23 Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives. In their death, they were not divided. They were swifter than eagles. They were stronger than lions. 1:24 You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,who clothed you in scarlet delicately,who put ornaments of gold on your clothing. 1:25 How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan is slain on your high places. 1:26 I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan. You have been very pleasant to me. Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. 1:27 How are the mighty fallen,and the weapons of war perished!”

Now a love that “passes” (meaning, surpasses) “the love of women” is clearly a love that is not the same as the love of women. Something that is greater than something else is not equal it. Hence the Biblical text is clearly stating that the love between David and Jonathan is not romantic or erotic. Quite the contrary, it is stating that the love they shared was greater than those loves. It is in fact agape love, the highest of all loves as described by C. S. Lewis in his classic book The Four Loves. (For an introduction to Lewis’s idea, see the Wikipedia entry on The Four Loves, but by all means read Lewis’s book for its own great merits.)

I have not seen or heard David et Jonathas, so I cannot judge what kind of bond between the two men is suggested in the opera’s libretto, but Tommasini’s description that the two men are “clearly in love” is telling: it may be an accurate description of this staging of the opera, but as a description of the original authors’ intent it strikes me as contentious at best. After all, he notes, the relationship between David and Jonathatn is “chaste.” Which means that the text of the opera, like the Bible itself, makes no suggestion that the two ever engaged in homosexual behavior.

That all-important contradiction notwithstanding, Tommasini forges ahead, analyzing the two men’s relationship and concluding that they have a homosexual passion for each other but fail to act on it:

The bass Neal Davies portrays [King Saul, Jonathas’s father] as an overbearing patriarch, worried whether his son is manly enough to rule and suspicious about David’s influence. David wonders whether it is a crime to feel such joy in his love for his friend, while Jonathas is torn between appeasing his father and following David. You almost wish these characters could call a gay hot line.

Tommasini is effusive in his praise of the production (which includes a female playing the part of Jonathas), but his real interest seems to be in sexual politics. He concludes with the following, after recounting the opera’s depiction of Jonathan dying, in David’s arms, of injuries suffered in battle:

Any doubt that Charpentier’s opera is a love story is banished by the end. David is proclaimed the new king of Israel, but in his final words, the shaken young man can only say that he has lost all that he loves.

That David says that he has lost all that he loves after Jonathan’s death (which coincides with King Saul’s death, we must note) may be an accurate reference to a line in the libretto (and one that is sufficiently important that Tommasini ought to have quoted it directly), but that is quite consonant with the Biblical passage quoted above, which clearly has no homosexual overtones whatsoever. This appears to be no smoking gun at all.

Instead of all this being what Charpentier and Bretonneau wrote and intended, it seems far more likely that the opera’s director, Andreas Homoki, is putting a twenty-first century gloss on the story, creating the homosexuality angle to garner publicity and political-acceptance points. A Buenos Aires Herald review of a 2010 production in Buenos Aires suggests conventional stagings of David and Jonathan don’t cause an unbiased observer to think of the central relationship as romantic or erotic:

As usual in this kind of opera one gets the impression that the singers react to events that happen offstage. This, and Charpentier’s music, are David and Johnathan’s most remarkable features, as well as the absence of a romantic interest: the only love here is that felt by the two leading characters for each other.

Tommasini’s description of Homoki’s staging of the opera as “a love story” may well be accurate, but the notion that either the Baroque composer and librettist or the author of the Books of Samuel meant the relationship between David and Jonathan to be a homosexual one is quite unfounded on the evidence in Tommasini’s review.

It seems to me rather a pity that a strong bond of love between two people of the same sex should automatically be seen as a sexual matter. When love is degraded into a bodily urge, no one is well served by the result. But that’s politics for you.