No less a personage than Marie Antoinette was in the audience for the premiere of Johann Christian Bach’s Amadis de Gaule at the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris on December 14, 1799. Presumably the cast was more modest than the huge ensemble assembled on the State Opera stage for a concert version of the opera last night, which included a 50-piece orchestra, a 20-voice choir and nine soloists, several of whom came with visiting French conductor Didier Talpain. No dancers, but no complaints about the performance, a smart, satisfying slice of classic late 18th-century opera.
Bach’s Amadis is often mentioned in the same breath as Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) and Beethoven’s Fidelio (1805), principally in terms of the orchestration. But the overall sound and structure is also very similar; indeed, if you walked into the middle of a performance of Amadis without knowing what it was, those two contemporaries would come immediately to mind. Which is not to denigrate Bach’s music. He had a seemingly endless supply of captivating melodies, and in some respects Amadis is like a template for the next 100 years of European opera, with passages that could fit easily into later works by, say, Rossini or even Bizet.
Talpain drew a brisk performance from the orchestra, which was a melding of two regional Baroque specialty groups – Marek Štryncl’s Musica Florea from Prague, and Miloš Valent’s Solamente Naturali, which is based in Bratislava. Talpain works regularly with Solamente Naturali, with whom he has made well-received recordings of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach symphonies and Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s opera Mathilda von Guise. That may partly account for the smooth flow of the music last night, which did not have much depth but pulsed with bright lyrical energy, gliding through complicated passages like a skater on ice – an apt reflection of the snowstorm raging outside.
It’s a risky business bringing any Baroque ensemble to Prague, where local ears are attuned to the high standards set by Collegium 1704 and Collegium Marianum. There’s no way that a 50-piece pickup band playing mostly modern instruments is going to duplicate that caliber of sound. But Talpain has a very good feel for the music, and his enthusiasm and intelligence were evident in the spirited singing and playing of everyone on the stage.
The five primary soloists all needed some time to warm up, not really hitting full voice until the second and third acts. Hjördis Thébaultová, the first one on the stage (as Arcabonne), had a smaller voice than her colleagues, but good dramatic soprano skills that were impressive within her range. Baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot (as her scheming brother Arcalaüs) provided a solid counterpart, and in the third act showed he could carry an extended aria.
|Top of the line tenor Do.|
Philippe Do (Amadis) had the strongest voice of the evening, a classic romantic tenor with a slightly darker hue that contrasted nicely with the music. Katia Velletazová (as his lover Oriane) struck up a lovely duet with Do in the first act, then grew stronger over the course of evening, showing solid range and expression, if not much power. Soprano Liliana Faraon (Urgande, the good sorceress) flitted on and off the stage with coloratura lines that floated like snowflakes.
Some of the most interesting vocals in Amadis, at least for this reviewer, belong to the chorus – more traditional Baroque passages of layered, overlapping melodies. Musica Florea’s regular vocal ensemble made the most of the choral parts, combining tight, disciplined singing with strong surges of emotion.
It all made for a very pleasant evening – lightweight, certainly, the kind of music that sparkles in performance and leaves you humming afterward, but has evaporated by the next morning. Still, the care that Talpain and his large troupe devoted to the piece was obvious. And the concert performance was a smart way to go, stripping Amadis down to its essentials. The story was well-worn even in 1799. But Bach’s music is still a delight to hear.