AMADIS (DE GAULE)
Opéra in a prologue and 5 acts
Composer: Jean-Baptiste Lully
Libretto: Philippe Quinault
First performed: Théâtre du Palais-Royal, Paris, January 1684
For the first time, French opera leaves the world of the Greek heroes and gods, for mediaeval romance.
Amadis, like all good heroes of chivalry, is separated from his parents at birth, raised in secrecy, tutored by a good wizard, devoted to a beautiful princess, and goes mad. His earliest surviving appearance is in a a popular Spanish romance by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo (1508), translated into French in the 16th century.
Louis XIV himself had suggested Amadis de Gaule be operafied; he had grown up reading it, and liked to compare himself to the hero. (So did Don Quixote.)
Tales of knights and wizards seem to have inspired Lully more than the Classical legends – if we believe Lully’s dedicatory preface to the king.
“Le nom d’AMADIS m’inspira une nouvelle ardeur. Dès qu’il a falu faire paroistre un Heros d’une nation, à la gloire & au divertissement de laquelle i’ay consacré toutes mes veilles, ie me suis plus senty d’entouziasme & de fureur divine, qu’il ne s’en eslevoit autrefois des tripieds d’Apollon, & que ie n’en ay senty pour les Heros de la Fable & de la Grece que i’ay mis sur le Theatre.”
It certainly gave a fillip to his imagination. The score is a distinct advance on Lully’s earlier works. The vocal writing is more melodic and ornate, and recitative based on simple basse continue becomes rarer; indeed, the title role is written entirely in arioso, accompanied by the orchestra.
Amadis, scholars say, opens Lully’s third period, marked by a greater musicality.
“It is the opposite of the fault of Cadmus,” Philippe Beaussant (Lully ou le Musicien du Soleil) argues. “Here, everyone sings, all the time, and first the orchestra… Almost without recitative, there is room only for lyrical effusions, and the singing arias, the ariosi follow one another without interruption.”
The orchestra is more important, Beaussant continues – not just in large symphonic pages, of which the 13-minute chaconne of Act V constitutes the summit – but in the accompaniment, which now gives the voice its fullness.
The public, though, was lukewarm. “The piece was full of references to His Majesty,” Georges Touchard-Lafosse notes, “and Lully made this obligatory panegyric sing as best he could. But the audience tired of these praises in sharps, flats, and naturals; the poem and music of Amadis seemed inordinately long.”
Crowds came for the spectacle; for the first time, characters flew through the air. “The public were charmed by this ingenious arrangement of wires,” Touchard-Lafosse writes. “They ran to the Opéra to admire it, then ceased to go there, hence the witticism that the success of Amadis hung by a thread.”
The opera was performed sporadically throughout the 18th century, often a decade apart, and last given in 1771.
Act I is, as usual in Lully’s operas, largely expository, conveyed through functional recit. Amadis laments that Oriane thinks he has fallen in love with another princess. The act ends with a tournament in Oriane’s honour; it has a martial Air des combattants, full of trumpets, and a chorus, “Belle princesse, que vos charmes”.
The evil magicians Arcalaüs and Arcabonne vow vengeance on Amadis, who slew their brother, Ardan-Canile. Arcabonne reveals that she has fallen in love with an unknown knight (really Amadis), who saved her from a monster.
Arcalaüs lays a trap for the knight: he has captured Amadis’ half-brother Florestan, and summons a horde of demons to do his bidding against the knight. His invocation, “Dans un piège fatal”, may be the model for Bertram’s scene in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable 150 years earlier.
In the opera’s hit aria, “Bois épais”, Amadis expresses his suffering; it is, Laurencie says, of a sombre and melancholy grandeur.
A demon disguised as Oriane seduces Amadis; he lays down his arms, and follows her. The Symphonie des enchantements is … enchanting. The 14-minute scene contains a lovely chorus “Non, non, pour être invincible”; a duet of shepherds, accompanied by a trio of violins and hautbois; and a trio of shepherds, with a trio of violins and flutes.
Act III opens with a poignant chorus of captives, “Ô mort! que vous êtes lente!”; among the captives are Florestan and his girlfriend Corisande. Arcabonne, in a chariot drawn by a flying dragon, arrives, and summons her dead brother’s ghost in a powerful scene. Amadis arrives to rescue his friends; Arcabonne is about to kill him, when she recognises the knight who saved her, and releasse the captives. Note her “Consolez-vous dans vos tourments”.
In Act IV, Arcalaüs is keeping Oriane prisoner on an enchanted island. Arcalaüs makes her believe that Amadis – come to save her – is dead; she expresses her grief in “Il m’appelle”. The good witch Urgande rescues the couple. The villains summon more demons; when they are defeated, they kill themselves. Their intense duet “Démons, soumis à nos lois” is one of the best things Lully has done.
Half-a-dozen operas about Amadis followed, including works by Handel (1715), J.C. Bach (1779), and Massenet (1922). (The best of these seems to be Bach’s.)
Les Talens Lyrique, conducted by Christophe Rousset. Aparté, 2013.
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869.
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
- Lionel de la Laurencie, Les maîtres de la musique: Lully, 2nd edition, Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan, 1919 (2nd edition)
- “Amadis de Gaule”, Opéra Baroque