Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Amadis de Gaule by J.C.Bach at Opéra Comique in Paris

Amadis de Gaule, Opéra Comique in Paris, January 2 2012

Conductor ..... Jérémie Rhorer
Director ..... Marcel Bozonnet

Amadis ..... Philippe Do
Oriane ..... Hélène Guilmette
Arcabonne ..... Allyson McHardy
Arcalaüs ..... Franco Pomponi
Urgande, 1st Coryphaeus ..... Julie Fuchs
La Discorde, 2nd Coryphaeus ..... Alix Le Saux
La Haine, L’Ombre d’Ardan Canil ..... Peter Martinčič*
Soprano solo ..... Ana Dežman*
Tenor solo ..... Martin Sušnik*
*soloistes of the Chorus of SNG Ljubljana (Slovenia)

Compagnie de danse Les Cavatines (Natalie van Parys)
Le Cercle de l’Harmonie

Amadis de Gaule is an opera by Johann Christian Bach, a composer who was the Mozart's contemporary and who Mozart reputedly admired (they even met twice -- once in London and once in Paris.)  J.C. Bach was one of many sons of Johann Sebastian Bach, converted to catholicism and lived in Italy, married to Italian. He composed operas in Italian, English, and only one in French which is one of his most significant works. That information alone makes it surprising that Amadis de Gaule has never been staged in France since its creation in 1779. I liked the idea that Opéra Comique in Paris decided to produce this opera and start 2012 on a good note.

Amadis de Gaule was in a sense an update of Lully's opera Amadis -- both operas are based on the libretto written by Philippe Quinault. While the music by J.C. Bach contains some elements of baroque, it is much more melodic, less long, and the style is clearly the early Classical -- very much like early Mozart, or late Jommelli. Listen to this example (one of the few highlights of Amadis de Gaule)

The artistic management of the Opéra Comique had a good idea to invite Jérémie Rhorer and his orchestra to revive this score. They are always brilliant in performing Mozart, and this music is very close to early Mozart -- the result could not be bad. Last night, at the premiere, they sounded impeccable, even if with a few 'dry moments.' (this may be a false impression -- it's maybe the score?!)

Now the far fetched libretto is filled with metaphors and therefore a fertile ground for astute stage directors who could use them to tell the story in a way closer to the people who live in the 3rd millennium (Just like Jan Philipp Glogger did with Alcina in Dresden.)

The plot is less messy than in most of the famous baroque operas, there are less characters and and there are not too many impossible twists. Since there is no synopsis available on the Internet, I'll write it here for you.
Act-1: In a dark forest, the magician/sorceress Arcabonne weeps as she fell in love with an unknown knight who saved her life. Her brother, the sorcerer Arcalaus, reminds her of their mission to avenge the death of their brother Ardan, killed by Amadis the paladin. By black magic they generate a conflict between Amadis and his princess Oriane, call the help from Demons and abduct the princess. Amadis courageously comes to rescue his fiancée, but stopped by a magic spell he and his soldiers eventually surrender to Arcalaus and Demons.

Act-2: Arcabonne prepares for the ritual of torturing the prisoners that should culminate by the death of Amadis. The Shadow of Death suddenly appears and warns her [Arcabonne] that she would betray her brother and join him in Hell. Arcabonne understands the threat only after recognizing that Amadis is actually the unknown knight who saved her life. Tormented, she succumbs to the 'good', liberates Amadis and all other captives.

Act-3: Arcabonne explains to her brother why she liberated Amadis, which only inflames the rage and jealousy in Arcalaus. Oriane, still imprisoned, is desperate but believes that Amadis would come and save her. Arcalaus tricks her by his black magic and shows her the image of the dead Amadis. Believing in the hopelessness of her situation Oriane wants to die too.
At this point of the story it is revealed that Amadis and Oriane are in fact asleep and possessed by evil spirits. The good fairy Urgande appears and rescues them. Arcalaus wanders away to burn in his own rage and hatred on the road to Hell to join Arcabonne. Urgande reanimates Amadis and Oriane who are back in love again, and Amadis is back in his noble paladin mission: fight for the freedom and justice.
Marcel Bozonnet was not trying to make this plot closer to us, or to play with metaphors to make his take on the story peculiar...  His production looks as if taken from the museum shelves, narrated the libretto with no wit nor any interpretative input, but with a very cheesy finale of "celebration of love."
Very nice costumes were unfortunately combined with sets consisting of printed curtains in the backgrounds, painted pillars on the cardboard paper... The arrival of Urgande was 'ghastly' -- a fairy  descending from the sky, standing in the center of the Sun (also painted cardboard paper, c.f. photo above) -- kitscherei par excellence!
However, thanks to Natalie van Parys (choreographer) and to the relative shortness of the piece (2 hrs with no intermission),  boredom actually never sets in and you spend a moderately pleasant evening -- if you like Mozart and the early Classic style, that is.
After some Internet research, I found that a more modern approach to this story was attempted a couple of years ago by Nicolas Brieger in Mannheim. That production will be rerun this January/February too. Here is a short clip from that production:

Back to the last night's premiere. I should stress once again that  Jérémie Rhorer and his orchestra saved the night. As for the singing, I thought was OK(ish) overall. Hélène Guilmette was the most expressive singer, her voice sounds good, and the small size of the Opéra Comique helped her. Allyson McHardy had a tough job because her role was long and requires all the registers of her voice to be employed. Although I heard her singing better than last night, she was good in the important parts. Philippe Do is a fine tenor who tried too much to make his voice sound big, occasionally sacrificing his vocal line (half a tone here and there.)

So, all in all, I was glad to discover an opera that exemplifies the overlapping era between baroque and classicism.  If only the show and sets didn't look like a revival of the production premiered in 1779, and the director had any ground idea for his show...

A few production photos [©Pierre Grosbois]:

I forgot my camera and the only pic I took was with my iPhone:


and a short segment shown on France3-TV:

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