When Johann Christian Bach’s last completed opera was staged in Paris in 1779 the capital was raging with an operatic tussle between supporters of Gluck (drama) and Piccinni (singing). Amadis de Gaule, Bach’s first and only attempt at a tragédie lyrique – knight errant Amadis and Oriane, his lady, are ensnared by a heinous brother-and-sister duo of sorcerers – flopped after a few performances. It reportedly failed to appeal to either warring faction by trying to take the middle ground. Either that or audiences were so busy slugging it out that they failed to notice.
This new staging, the opera’s first outing in France since that initial run, was unveiled in the Opéra Royal at Versailles in December before moving to Paris’s Opéra-Comique, the house which strives to rekindle interest in the French repertoire. It is a laudable mission but we leave the theatre convinced the work originally tanked because it was simply trying to do what Gluck did better.
A true cosmopolitan, Johann Sebastian Bach’s youngest son could turn his hand to opera seria as easily as the French style. Amadis sparkles in Oriane’s touching lament, or when the sorceress Arcabonne unleashes her fury in a scene that seems to anticipate Electra in Mozart’s Idomeneo, but the score treads too much water. Some of this is due to his librettist’s clumsily truncated version of Quinault’s original story but the music is often no more than a competent effort to reheat an ageing theatrical format.
Sadly, the staging also serves up a feast of leftovers. Antoine Fontaine’s sets – classical columns, painted flats and cardboard rocks – look worn and recycled while Renato Bianchi’s costumes might have been discovered in some long-neglected attic. They raise a (probably unintentional) smirk – his first row of demons looks like The Muppet Show while Arcabonne is dressed like a demented red parakeet – but the cloud of dust that Oriane’s train sends up with each move sums them up neatly.
The producer, Marcel Bozonnet, seems unsure over baroque gesture. We start with much hands-to-head from Arcabonne – as in “I need an aspirin, quick” – and dramatic upper torso posturing from brother Arcalaüs, whose feet seem to be trapped in a patch of glue, but efforts from the rest of the cast are half-hearted.
Casting is just as patchy. Allyson McHardy’s fiery Arcabonne delivers the goods and Julie Fuchs is a full-bodied, tuneful Urgande but Philippe Do’s threadbare tenor makes very heavy weather of Amadis. Hélène Guilmette’s sweetly sung Oriane turns shrill under pressure and Franco Pomponi (Arcalaüs) tends to bark.
Thank heavens for Jérémie Rhorer’s conducting. His Cercle de l’Harmonie band is not on top form – woodwind tuning is a problem – but he provides the energy and conviction so often missing on stage.