In Itamar Moses’ intellectual comedy, “Bach at Leipzig,” which opened Friday night at Portland Stage, the title character, although an off-stage presence throughout, never makes an appearance.

The word “intellectual,” or visions of Baroque musicians in white wigs, should not deter anyone. The production is funny, witty and sometimes moving, with plenty of relevance to go around, as seven musicians (eight if you count Bach) audition for an important musical directorship of the Thomaskirche left vacant by the death of Johann Kunau in 1772.

The underhanded tricks, threats and stratagems employed by all drive the action, and give Moses the opportunity for wisecracks about everything from Lutheran predestination to codes in musical scores, which can mean almost anything at all, depending upon how they are interpreted. The playwright also has fun with the mechanics of his own craft, from Moliere to the absurdists.

As we learn more about the characters, we come to realize that it is the love of music — and a possible opportunity to make a living at it — that defines them all. My favorite scene involves Johann Friedrich Fasch, played by Tom Butler, explaining the art of the fugue in a letter to his wife from prison — for a crime everyone on stage seems to have committed.

As he writes his clear and accurate description, the characters move silently around the stage, choreographed as the voices in a Bach fugue, a very nice piece of work from director Samuel Buggeln.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with what seem like stock characters rapidly taking on complex individuality. Daniel Noel, as the theater-loving George Friedrich Kaufmann, is a good example, wise at one instant and clueless the next.

The single set, by Wilson Chin, is spectacular, as are Kris Hall’s glorious Baroque costumes, complete with swords. Even the penniless musician George Lenck, vivaciously portrayed by Colby Chambers, is dressed like royalty.

I also liked Ron Botting’s Johann Christoph Graupner, who is made up and acts like a combination of Liszt and Paganini.

The intellectual play that characterizes most of the drama eventually becomes a play within a play and then descends into farcical sword fights, which seem a bit over the top until they are stilled by the voice of the organ, played by a newcomer.

In the end, of course, all of the contestants, including the godlike Telemann, who is only applying to force a raise at his own church, lose out to J.S. Bach, whose music rises triumphantly in the background. In the recapitulation everyone wins, transfigured by genius.

The play is long, about two and a half hours, including a 15-minute intermission, but holds the interest throughout. It received a standing ovation from a near-capacity audience.

 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at :

[email protected]