Notes and Editorial Reviews
Johann Christian Bach, the only member of his family to have had any career in the opera house, began writing for the stage in Italy, continued in London and Mannherm and ended in Paris. This work is the last of his operas, written in 1779 to a revision of the libretto by Quinault that Lully had set almost a century before. It was not a success; there were only seven performances and it was never revived. One can, I think, see some of the reasons why it failed to please the French audiences at the time of the Gluck/Piccinni controversies, but there is nevertheless some superlative music here which certainly affects our view of J. C. Bach, whom we tend to regard above all as an elegant, galant composer of courtly, Italianate QG symphonies
and chamber music.
Amadis des Gaules (or de Gaule, as it is more usually and no less correctly known) is a tragedie-lyrique, on a magical medieval theme about a pair of sorcerers, brother and sister, who seek vengeance on Amadis and his beloved Oriane because he earlier killed their brother, Ardan Canale. It is rather a silly plot and one that I rather think no music of the late eighteenth century could plausibly support. Bach, however, produces a number of very fine pieces. Some are virtually Italian-style arias, for example the first two, the one for the Coryphee near the end of Act 2 and that for the sorcerer Arcalaus in the final act. But there are also some intensely eloquent airs, notably all the solo music for Amadis (the part was composed for the famous haute-contre, Legros) including a very Gluckian air at the end of Act 1 there is a powerful invocation for Arcalaus, an astonishing ghost scene for Ardan Canale (recalling with its misty, low-pitched halo of sound Handel's for Samuel in his Saul, which Bach must have known) and several duets, among them an impassioned piece for the sorcerers earlier in Act 1 and an appealing one soon after for the lovers, as well as a very warmly written piece (also for the lovers) near the end of the opera.
There are some fine choruses, including a vivid one for the sorcerers' demons, an amorous, languid item for the spirits enchained by the sorcerers and a noble, chromatic piece to open Act 2 for the prisoners and the guards. Being a French opera, Amadis of course has no secco but rather orchestral recitative throughout, music in the manner of the recitative in Idomeneo though not, of course dramatically as dense or as closely worked. But much of it is strong, taut, effective music, often very richly orchestrated: even the string writing seems texturally dense, and there is plenty of imaginative and resourceful writing for the woodwind (which includes clarinets). That for the orchestra is altogether particularly attractive: the highly expressive introduction to Act 3 is like nobody else—it's not much like any other J. C. Bach either, if it comes to that—and with the expressions of grief that follow from the heroine, Oriane, it makes a very remarkable scene. Gluck, of course, is the obvious point of reference in terms of style: his two Iphigenies, Armide and the French versions of Alceste and Orfeo had been heard in Paris not long before, though Bach reverts at times to his more Italian manner and lacks the broad dramatic command and concentration that distinguish Gluck's greatest works. Bach had also composed for Mannheim and there is some influence of the reform style favoured in that progressive centre.
A French opera, often Italian in idiom, written by a German who spent most of his working life in England: a real EEC piece, this! And it is made the more so here by being performed in German. That is of course regrettable, because the music takes its rhythms and the shape of its lines from the French language and the mismatch is palpable. The performance is, I imagine, based on those given in 1988 in Stuttgart and Frankfurt. Helmuth Rilling, always a dependable and efficient conductor, directs what is a largely effective and stylish reading, with well chosen tempos and a real sense of drama where it is called for. And he clearly relishes the variety of orchestral colour in the score. There are a few cuts, notably of some of the ballet music at the ends of acts. Bach made some adjustments during the run of the original performances, which seem to be reflected in different versions of the autograph; in some cases Rilling prefers the changed text.
Of the singers, I was particularly impressed by James Wagner, an American, who negotiates the very high-lying music for Amadis without evident strain and with smooth tone and expressive line. Ibolya Verebics is impressive, too, for her dramatic singing of Arcabonne's music. The rest of the cast are also very competent. I don't imagine that Amadis des Gaules is ever likely to enter the repertory, but there is a lot of very fine, highly original and deeply serious music in this score; it's amply worth trying.'
-- Stanley Sadie, Gramophone [9/1993]
Works on This Recording
Amadis des Gaules, TW G39 by Johann Christian Bach
Elfriede Hobarth (Soprano),
Ulrike Sonntag (Soprano),
Wolfgang Schöne (Bass),
Ibolya Verebics (Soprano),
James Wagner (Tenor)
Stuttgart Bach Collegium,
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Written: by 1779; London, England
Length: 124 Minutes 0 Secs.
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