Amadis de Gaule, UCL Opera, Bloomsbury Theatre, March 2015Posted on 24 March 2015
In 65 years of UCL Opera productions this is the first work of Bach, the ‘English’ Bach — Johann Christian (1735–1782) — a son of Johann Sebastian by his second marriage. His three-act libretto was based on an earlier five-act one by Philippe Quinault for the French composer Lully, which in turn was based on an old story often quoted in Don Quixote.
Before the opera starts Amadis has killed Ardan in a dispute over his lover Orianne. Ardan’s brother and sister, sorcerer and sorceress, Arcalaüs and Arcabonne are determined to take revenge. In the meantime a complication has arisen — Arcabonne has fallen in love with a mysterious stranger who saved her from a monster. She has seen his face, but knows not his name — it is Amadis.
At this point the opera springs into action, with the evil magicians, assisted by demons, tormenting prisoners and setting their power against Amadis and Orianne. In the end they fail and the good fairy Urgande brings the lovers together, after plenty of scope for bewitchment, emotion and threats of punishment and death, rather like the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Perhaps this is what director Jack Furness had in mind when he showed prisoners with bags over their heads having their throats slit, which certainly gives an impression of evil. Excellent designs by Hannah Wolfe showing the debris of civilisation, wonderful lighting by Joshua Pharo and good fight sequences by Alex Brabbins, but I could have done without the juvenile choreography, and what was the reason for that incoherent love-in at the end of Act I? Girl on girl, boy on boy, fun for the chorus, but out of sync with the story thus far. Better to allow the music to speak for itself under the superb baton of Charles Peebles.
UCL do a marvellous job of reviving little-known operas, using visiting principals along with student orchestra, chorus and soloists. This year it was Nicholas Morris as the sorcerer Arcalaüs whose presence and excellent diction held things together in Act I. His sister Arcabonne, portrayed by Katherine Blumenthal, lacked diction in the first act but thereafter came over well, as did the lovely voice of Alice Privett as Orianne, who sang a very fine lamentation at the start of Act III. Diction is vital as this was performed in English translation without surtitles. No problem there for Lawrence Olsworth-Peter as Amadis, though he lacked tone.
Among the students, congratulations to bass Edward Cottell as Ardan and, rather confusingly, the jailer. Florentina Harris gave a nicely mysterious, mainly mimed, performance as Urgande, and Ella Joy was notable as the soprano soloist. A fine revival of a late J.C. Bach opera, prefiguring works of Mozart, to whom Bach was friend and mentor.
An intriguing performance with a fine large chorus under the expert baton of Charles Peebles — catch it while you can. Performances continue on March 25, 27, 28 — for details click here.