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Unknown Pleasures

Timothy Nelson Stages Obscure Operas Through His Ignoti Dei Opera

By John Barry | Posted 8/31/2005

If you think owning a house at 25 is an accomplishment, consider this: Timothy Nelson has his own opera company. Ignoti Dei Teatra already has four productions to its credit, two of them at Theatre Project, but for Nelson and his cohorts, it’s only the beginning. Ignoti Dei—Latin for “unknown gods”—has a mission, and between performances of his latest—David et Jonathas—that’s what he wants to talk about.

“We do early opera from about the 17th century to the mid-18th century,” he says over coffee during Dei’s lone weekend run of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 1688 work at Theatre Project. “We want to maintain authenticity, but at the same idea what we do staging-wise is connect more with the spirit of the work, which for the modern audience has to be in modern terms.”

Charpentier’s David et Jonathas has never been staged in the United States—and its obscurity makes it difficult to find out much about its story. The tightly scripted five-page essay in Dei Opera’s program contains no plot synopsis, merely vague references to the Book of Samuel. A verse that includes David’s paean to his friend Jonathas, who died at the hands of the Philistines, serves as a prologue. The lights go up to reveal a largely empty stage covered with 2.5 tons of sand and backed with a tall section of barbed-wire fencing. Is this going to be a quick update to 21st-century ethnic cleansing?

Nope. Despite the profusion of burkhas, barbed wire, beachcombers, and other motifs, the music—from a skilled 15-piece orchestra that included harpsichord, guitars, violins, and other stringed instruments—is resolutely anchored in the 17th century. A capable young cast took on the triple burden of a five-act, 17th-century libretto, experimental choreography, and distinctly 21st-century characterization. Even more challenging were the two lead roles—both in upper ranges, with David (Brian Cummings) and Jonathas (Matthew Walker) both countertenors.

Ignoti Dei Opera’s David et Jonathas comes off as ambitious and challenging, or, to put it another way, confusing. Nelson did, too, acknowledging that one of the primary characters—King Saul—isn’t even identified until the second act. “That allows the audience to be part of the discovery,” he says.

Charpentier may not have intended it that way. Originally this three-hour opera was meant to be woven in with a lengthy spoken Latin tragedy; by leaving that element out, Nelson does away with much of the conventional exposition. The result is an opera heavy on imagery and soliloquies, with little action. Nelson says he hopes that, with reconstructions like this, Ignoti can liberate early opera from the stylized “museum pieces” associated with early-music performances while avoiding the cold, distanced productions associated with modernism.

“For me it’s postmodern because there’s an element of romanticism involved, at least an element of expression, that’s kind of absent in a lot of modernist works,” he says. “I don’t really care. I just like what comes out. When you go to a period performance today, there’s a static element—one person here, another here, they stand still until one bursts into tears. I don’t like it at all. I don’t think it’s authentic.”

To establish that authentic link, Nelson uses David et Jonathas to focus on the romantic relationship between the two central characters. That’s almost tangential to the central drama of the biblical version, which is concerned with the tensions between David, future king of Israel, and Saul, the present king. “When it was written, love between two men wouldn’t have been considered homosexual,” he says. “Now you can’t stop audiences from thinking about it in those terms.” By ratcheting up the gay romance, he’s taking that in a new direction.

That turns the opera into an extended series of dramatic monologues, all revolving around the relationship between the future king of Israel (David) and Saul’s son Jonathas. “I try to get the characters to participate with method acting, with almost Brechtian elements,” Nelson says, stirring his coffee. “The specifics of the story weren’t all that important to me. I wanted to abstract all the details and make it sort of a psychological tableau.”

That description doesn’t explain everything about this production, but it gives you an idea: Ignoti is ambitious, talented, and a little muddled theoretically. But it’s hard to fault the goal: taking opera out of the Lyric and planting it in smaller, more intimate venues such as Theatre Project. It may be a difficult leap to make—but Nelson’s young, driven, capable opera is well on its way to doing that.

For the moment, though, Nelson’s gaze is on the short term. The company has to be out by Aug. 30, and Nelson is about to fly to Indiana to work on a degree in staging. After a $12,000 dollar production, he claims that Ignoti Dei is in the black, “but just barely,” pending nonprofit 501k status. Meanwhile, he’s got to figure out what he’s going to do with 2.5 tons of sand.

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