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Summer Opera: J. C. Bach's Temistocle

Other Reviews:

Mehdi Mahdavi, L’exaltante violence de Temistocle (Altamusica, June 24)

Christophe Rousset entdeckt "Temistocle" (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, May 11)

Manuel Brug, Bachs "Themistocle" in Leipzig (Die Welt, May 9)

George Loomis, Bach Festival Leipzig Spotlights an Opera by Old Sebastian's Youngest Son, Johann Christian (International Herald Tribune, May 4)
J. S. Bach may never have written an opera (unless you count some of the secular cantatas, and that's a stretch), but J. C. Bach did. Near the end of his successful career, in 1772, the Elector of Mannheim commissioned one from "The London Bach," for his state-of-the-art theater that seated 5,000 people and had elaborate stage machines. The subject was Themistocles, the Athenian general whose life was told by Plutarch. As you might imagine, this is an opera that does not see that many performances, but this year Christophe Rousset and his Baroque performing group Les Talens Lyriques did it, in a staged production cosponsored by the Oper Leipzig and the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse. There weren't many reviews, but Alain Cochard saw it (Temistocle de Jean-Chrétien Bach renaît!, June 23) for ConcertClassic (my translation):
We are ten years before the Idomeneo that Mozart also wrote for Anton Raff and Dorothea Wendling, who created the roles of Aspasia and Temistocle. [...] With the three unrelated ballet scenes added to its already vast three acts, Johann Christian Bach's new opera went on for longer than five hours. Christophe Rousset wisely opted not to perform the ballets in order to concentrate on the lyric drama, of a psychological richness and musical lavishness that was the subject of all the conversations between music-loving Toulousains during the intermissions. A discovery, to be sure, and of a major score that loses nothing in comparison to the young Mozart's opera seria and may even surpass them by a nose in the quality of the writing, the inventive harmony, and expression. Johann Christian composed with the pleasure one might imagine for Mannheim's large orchestra, which have engineered the revolution of the Sturm und Drang, in which his brother and principal teacher, C. P. E. Bach, had been one of the footsoldiers.
Cochard found the cast uneven, mostly strong except for tenor Rickard Söderberg ("too dry . . . hardly able to give the entire tortured dimension to the role") and a few other quibbles. The staging was "violently booed, and one indeed wonders why, since it was so inoffensive, without really being able to claim any real inspiration." France Musiques, of course, recorded one of the performances for a future broadcast (hello, NPR? PBS?). Hopefully, there will be a recording of this opera and the others by J. C. Bach on our store shelves soon.

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