Johann Christian Bach - Amadis de Gaule

Opéra Comique, Paris, Wednesday January 4 2012

Conductor: Jérémie Rhorer. Production: Marcel Bozonnet. Choreography: Natalie van Parys. Sets: Antoine Fontaine. Costumes: Renato Bianchi. Amadis: Philippe Do. Oriane: Hélène Guilmette. Arcabonne: Allyson McHardy. Arcalaüs: Franco Pomponi. Urgande, 1er Coryphée: Julie Fuchs. La Discorde, 2ème Coryphée: Alix Le Saux. La Haine, L’Ombre d’Ardan Canil: Peter Martinčič*. Soprano solo: Ana Dežman*. Tenor solo: Martin Sušnik*. 

* Soloists from the chorus of SNG Opera in balet, Ljubljana

“Period instruments, painted canvases, historically informed acting and choreography will all contribute to this major discovery of our repertoire,” says the Opéra Comique’s website in my translation, more accurate than their own. It would be odious indeed to make comparisons with Atys, revived in the same house last year. You might wonder, as the man on my left did, aloud, whether the Royal Opera in Versailles, then the Salle Favart in Paris, are the right places for productions that might most kindly be called “gentillet” (rather than Limoges, as he suggested). But I wouldn’t go so far as the FT’s ever-acerbic critic in calling it “a feast of leftovers.” Once you settled into the idea that this was an honest attempt to bring us baroque spectacle on a budget (and not another of Nicolas Joël’s tiresome attempts to turn the clock back and the Paris Opera into the Met), you were inclined to be indulgent and give it the benefit of the doubt.

So, no, the painted flats: fluted Doric columns, a fortified bridge, barred prison windows, “sublime” outcrops of rock, Rome, and, especially, a Caracalla-type brick ruin framing a circle of Veronese sky… were effective enough - not to mention Urgande descending at the end in a beautifully Kitsch, flaming orange mandorla. I didn’t find them as “worn and recycled” as the FT. The costumes were sometimes pretty, particularly during a Fragonard-like, pastoral ballet episode, though it’s true that at the end the chorus looked rather bedraggled in (puzzlingly but temping fate in reminding us directly of Atys) Louis XIV court dress. The FT critic thought the demons looked “like The Muppet Show while Arcabonne is dressed like a demented red parakeet,” but to me they looked more like science-fiction monsters from those old, cult, “Creature from the Lagoon” films, more amusing than frightening; my neighbours agreed that Amadis himself (cloaked in white, with lion's-head kneecaps) looked like Princess Leila. The FT was right in suggesting that the producer was “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 seemed to be trapped in a patch of glue…” yes, we found that annoying too; “but efforts from the rest of the cast are half-hearted.” The ballets could have been a lot worse (they usually are), and a couple of quirky hornpipes by two skinny but enthusiastic men were warmly applauded.

With raggedy attacks, dodgy ensemble playing and dodgy tuning, the Cercle de l’Harmonie is not yet up to Arts Florissants standards, but Rhorer nevertheless had them playing with energy and oomph. And finally, while, with the exception (see later) of Franco Pomponi, it was, you sat there thinking, too early for the leads to be singing such taxing arias in such a prominent house, your inclination was to admire the pluck of student singers making the most of their first big break.

Trouble is, that wasn’t exactly the case. Hélène Guilmette was last season’s underpowered, sometimes inaudible Thérese in Les Mamelles and Philippe Do (FT: “threadbare tenor”), to my amazement, sings Werther, Don José and (crikey) Verdi’s Requiem. Allyson McHardy has a very good middle range of the “North-of-England-mezzo” kind, but turned shrill and tremulous at the top of her soprano (so I believe) role.

Re Franco Pomponi, I see I’d noticed him before, in Henze’s The Bassarids in 2005: “Who," I asked, "is this Franco Pomponi? Visibly young and obviously, with his looks and figure, a candidate for Billy Budd, his is a bright, clear but forceful baritone and he threw himself into the part so generously I feared, I admit, for the length of his career.” To me, on Wednesday night, he was the only singer who really should have been up there singing that score. And the score was, to me, the evening’s winner: well made, lively, punchy, full of incident, plenty of anger and remorse, plenty of good arias and ensembles, reasonably short… Anyone who feels, for example, that Gluck didn’t compose enough operas would do well to look into Amadis de Gaule.


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