Student J C Bach

26 Mar

Yet more archeology. The latest dig was at the Bloomsbury Theatre on 25th March when I saw University College Opera do J C Bach’s Amadis de Gaule. For geeks like me, it’s hard to thank them enough for giving me the opportunity to see works like this, like Lalo’s Fiesque or Offenbach’s Whittington which I’d never get to see elsewhere and which have had considerable rewards.  Now they come up with my first opportunity to see a piece by J C Bach: his only opera written for Paris.

This is an opera strongly in the French tradition with plenty of ballet music but all of it arising out of the action: so the release of prisoners at the end of Act II is a celebration for them not, as seems to be the case in Rameau, an opportunity for some random dancers to come on. It feels, as Charles Peebles noted in the programme, like a complete opera – a through composed piece with orchestra accompanying the recits and, while there are arias and duets, these aren’t set piece numbers but, again, take the drama forward. I admired the richness of the orchestration and a sound and idiom that really is not far from Mozart at all.

The story is simple, again, like most French opera.  The evil Arcalaus and his sister Arcabonne are seeking revenge on Amadis and his beloved Oriane.  Having captured them both, Arcabonne realises that Amadis is her unknown beloved and that she cannot kill him.  The two are released by a deus ex machina at the end.

Lully set the story originally as, I believe, did Gluck.  Handel wrote a version for London. The interest is in seeing how J C Bach set it. What struck me was he provides some good arias and duets which reflect the dramatic situation but which don’t express dilemmas well – Orianne and Amadis have a convincing row but it doesn’t suggest much of their original attraction. Arcabonne, the wicked sister, surely ought to hesitate more before giving way to Amadis. You don’t get much depth of character. Nor do you get any of those heart-stopping melodies or moments that you do in Gluck or Handel or the sheer understanding of character. Often in opera, the release of prisoners is one such moment – I didn’t get it here. The music to me sounded efficient but it didn’t leave me wanting to hear it again.  It wasn’t a great surprise that it lasted for only seven performances in Paris.

UCO did it with their customary enthusiasm that overcomes the limitations of student performances – the occasionally scrappy and ill-tuned orchestra, the rather scrawny souund of the chours and some of the soloists. You overlooked these because of the enthusiasm and commitment that everyone was showing. It helped that it was done in Clive Brown’s clear, straightforward translation – they understood and sang the words and we could here them How often do you get that these days?

The leading soloists were professionals. Katherine Blumenthal has sung here before and made a strong, conflicted, clear Arcabonne, Nicholas Morris as her brother, Arcalaus gave a strong villainous performance, though I felt that his voice sounded strained. As Amadis, Lawrence Olworth-Peter’s rather constricted tenor nevertheless put the arias across clearly. Alison Privet showed a lot of promise and style as Oriane. Edward Cottell, who has sung in a number of performances here was the best of the student performers as the jailer and a ghostly voice.

Charles Peebles conducted a big, bold performance that sounded stylish and dramatic. I enjoyed the music and am not sure it was his fault that it all felt rather the same after a while.

Jack Furness directed and deliberately and, I think, rightly, avoided a cute, charming 18th century production. This was set in modern dress among terrorists and with real danger. I felt that he caught the rawness and realsim of the emotions aptly, even if it looked a bit ugly and, at times, undercut the elements of optimism of the opera. I’d like to see more of his work.

Even if the opera and performance didn’t convince me completely, I was glad to have had the opportunity to make those judgements.  Classical Opera are doing J C Bach’s Adriano in Siria in April and I’m looking forward to that.

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