J.C. Bach’s Amadis in Bielefeld

Johann Christian was the only Bach son to have had a cosmopolitan career and to write for the opera house. His last opera Amadis de Gaule, first performed in Paris in 1779, shows how he had successfully assimilated contemporary developments in musical theatre, notably those by Gluck. The score contains much which is striking and original, especially for the orchestra. There is an urgency in the thematic material for strings and a haunting quality in the passages for brass and woodwind. While the vocal pieces predominantly remain within the bounds of convention, there are a few notable exceptions, as when the heroine Oriane passionately laments the fate of her lover.

The libretto is not uninteresting. Remodelled from that written by Quinault  for other composers a century earlier, it is typically early baroque, a morality play in which the forces of hate, aided by magic and demons from the underworld, fight to overcome and destroy love. Unfortunately, at Bielefeld, the realms of magic and elemental forces were platitudinously transposed by director Maximilian von Mayenburg to a contemporary underground railway station: the spirits and demons (ordinary Bielefeld travellers) arriving from and descending into the underworld by escalator; the train announcement screen informing us that “hope” will arrive in 1 minute – oh dear! Moreover, Herr Mayenburg was in breach of the fundamental precept that transplanting the original to a contemporary setting is effective only where that new setting has a resonance for the audience, enabling them the better to appreciate the themes of a piece and engage emotionally with it. The U Bahn setting, with rather awkward designs by Sophie du Vinage and Sylvie Berndt, had the opposite effect: it created confusion and made it more difficult for the spectators to empathise with the protagonists.

There were some compensating features to the performance. The orchestra, under the direction of Wilko Jordens, played enthusiastically but with insufficient refinement. Nevertheless a good team of singers had been assembled. The brother and sister sorcerers, Arcalus and Arcabonne, were given a sharp profile. In the former hate-imbued role, Evgueniy Alexei with a commanding presence and a robust baritone poured scorn most effectively on the latter’s ambivalence between a desire to exact revenge for their brother’s death at the hands of Amadis and her love for a knight who had saved her life and who turns out to be no other than the same Amadis. As Arcabonne, the firmly-placed mezzo of Hasti Molavian and her intense melodramatic style showed that she could hold her own. Oriane was powerfully sung with a full, pure tone, by experienced soprano Cornelie Isenbürger. Her lover Amadis was to have been Chinese tenor Lianghua Gong but illness confined his contribution to acting the part on stage while Lawrence Olsworth-Peter, flown in at short notice from England, sang from a score in the wings. The fact that he had learnt the role only in English when the Bielefeld performance was given in the original French was a further handicap. Understandably there was some hesitancy in his singing but there were signs of a promising tenor voice and he is to be commended for saving the show.

A worthwhile, if flawed, revival of a far from negligible work.