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Performances

Renaud and Armide (Nicolas Poussin)
16 Feb 2007

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Armide (Opera Lafayette)

The Opera Lafayette of Washington DC has been engaged in a new project this season – the Armide Project, as the group dubbed its ambitious plan, in collaboration with the University of Maryland Opera Studio, to present two great operas set to the same celebrated Philippe Quinault libretto.

Above: Nicolas Poussin: Renaud and Armide (1626-1628)

 

On February 4th, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park MD hosted a concert performance of the original Armide – the 1686 masterpiece by Jean-Baptiste Lully; in April, the collaborators will offer a fully staged production of the 1777 Armide by Christoph Willibald Gluck, who resolved to conquer Paris by confronting the most famous creation of his illustrious predecessor.

Lully’s Armide, an enduring hit on the French operatic stage for a century after its premiere, is not often heard these days – particularly live. So, even unstaged, Opera Lafayette’s production of this brilliant, complex score was a rare treat to both the early music fans and the generally curious who packed the sold-out Dekelboum concert hall last Saturday afternoon. The 16-piece choir and a period instrument ensemble supported an international – and internationally acclaimed – group of soloists, some with most impressive baroque opera credentials. The casting evidently aimed at creating an ingenious mirror to Quinault’s well-known storyline, for it was dominated by Stephanie Houtzeel’s Armide. Tall, with regal posture, clad in blazing red jacket, the warrior princess ruled her universe with supreme confidence, commanding both respect and admiration of the troupes with her vocal power, range, and technique. Almost uncomfortable at times in its intense expressivity, Houtzeel’s performance was a reminder that the line between high drama and embarrassing melodrama on the 17th-century French stage would probably appear rather blurred to us.

In her interactions with other characters, Armide – in yet another hommage to Quinault – found herself conquered, on occasion, by the “implacable” Renaud of Robert Getchell. His ringing metallic tone, even in all registers, superb sound production, diction, and articulation were most appropriate for a hero crusader, while a certain lack of subtlety in phrasing and ornamentation still kept the audience’s sympathy securely with Armide. Among supporting roles, François Loup who pulled double duty as Hidraoth and Ubalde won praise for his rich, warm tone and elegant phrasing. William Sharp, Miriam Dubrow, and Tony Boutté did very well in their multiple roles (although Dubrow sounded a touch hesitant sometimes). Venerable Ann Monoyios appeared a little tense and had trouble with her projection in the prologue, but by the end of the evening one could see why this sought-after artist regularly works with the luminaries of period music.

The chorus did an excellent job throughout the performance, while the enthusiastic baton of Opera Lafayette’s artistic director Ryan Brown also coaxed some fine playing from the instrumentalists, including two lovely baroque flutes and a diverse continuo group of French viola da gamba, guitar, theorbo, cello, and harpsichord. The strings – divided according to French baroque tradition into five, rather than four parts – were less impressive in my opinion: their articulations (particularly in double-dotted passages) could have been sharper, and the ornaments more precise. There were also some issues with tempo changes between duple- and triple-time passages in the prologue. Yet overall, the ensemble’s rendition of the famously complex score was admirable, and the applause well deserved.

One of the most fascinating features of this concert performance was the part of it that was not, in fact, “concert”: close to forty minutes of period dancing performed by members of the New York Baroque Dance Company and choreographed especially for this production by Catherine Turocy. Unlike the singers, the dancers were costumed: ladies exhibited a contemporary take on high baroque fashion, complete with hair and shoes, while male helmets and tunics reminded one more of ancient Rome than the medieval crusades or Louis XIV’s France (no one – in the audience, at least – seemed to care). As the choreographer herself explained in a pre-concert Q & A, very few details of original choreography survive from Lully’s day; with the exception of a single gigue and two or three versions of the famous Act 5 passacaille, we can only guess what the dancing in Armide would have been like. So, Turocy made a guess – an educated one. The dancers offered examples of stylized baroque choreography: symmetrical, filled with traditional poses, movements, and gestures, and colored with appropriate symbolism as the main characters and ideas of the opera were reflected in its sister medium of ballet. The good spirits, for instance, were dressed in light-colored costumes and porcelain white masks, while the evil ones wore black, with brown masks, and carried long black veils that they would place over the head of their counterparts to symbolize their transformation into them. Along with the unexpectedly athletic set dances, there were episodes of pantomime, as the “stand-ins” for main characters played out the story in movement and gesture (for example, in Renaud’s famous Act 2 air de sommeil). Turocy clearly mined the score for ideas but treated the information creatively: for instance, in Act 3 divertissement, the followers of Hate are meant to capture Love and symbolically break its arrows to free Armide from her feelings for Renaud. In the current production, both captured Amour and (one) arrow were present, but the 17th-century cupid would hardly have behaved quite so insolently in front of the opera’s illustrious original audience.

The Opera Lafayette’s production of Armide was a long-awaited premiere of the new and what surely will be a definitive edition of this opera, prepared by Lois Rosow, a renowned Lully specialist and a professor of musicology at the Ohio State University. Dr Rosow, who was present at the performance, shared her expertise with the audience during the pre-concert Q&A that also included Ms. Turocy and Mr. Brown. Thankfully, this expertise will soon be available to baroque opera lovers worldwide: recorded for the Naxos label, Opera Lafayette’s performance of Lully’s masterpiece is due to be released in 2008.

Olga Haldey

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