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Caroline Copeland of the New York Baroque Dance Company with Opera Lafayette. [Photo by Louis Forget courtesy of Opera Lafayette]
11 Feb 2010

Armide by Opera Lafayette

Gluck’s Armide, as semi-staged (costumed dancers but no scenery) at the Rose Theater by the Washington-based Opera Lafayette, was exactly what Gluck designed the piece to be: a supremely elegant entertainment.

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Armide

Armide: Dominique Labelle; Renaud: William Burden; La Haine: Stephanie Houtzeel; Sidonie: Judith van Wanroij; Phénice: Nathalie Paulin; Artemidore: Robert Getchell; Hidraot: William Sharp; Aronte: Darren Perry. Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Chorus and the New York Baroque Dance Company, at the Rose Theater. Conducted by Ryan Brown. Performance of February 3.

Above: Caroline Copeland of the New York Baroque Dance Company with Opera Lafayette. [Photos by Louis Forget courtesy of Opera Lafayette]

 

The voices filled the small theater, the string section of the small orchestra was full enough to thrill, the dances were delicious, the French diction superb.

Armida (in French Armide), the heartless pagan sorceress who hopes to undermine the Crusades by capturing the Christian champion, Rinaldo (Renaud), only to fall in love with him herself, first appeared in Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, last of the great Italian Renaissance epics. Until the nineteenth century, all literate folk knew these stories (and, in Italy, read them), and their tales of love and magic were familiar tropes, each presenting a particular love problem. In Armida’s case, can the enchantment of love, which corrupts her ability to perform witchcraft, outweigh the allure to Rinaldo of glory and duty? In other words, can a woman balance a career with amour? And would a man give up for love what a woman is willing to give up for love? And should he? Innumerable composers contributed Armida operas to the debate, among them Lully, Handel, Haydn, Rossini, even Dvorak. In these works, Armida often gets — but never holds — her man.

That fine line between love and hate attracts audiences, not just composers. At the climax of Gluck’s opera — as a stunt, he had set the same Quinault libretto Lully had used in his Armide ninety years before, just to show he could write a “modern” opera without the help of a “modern” poet — Armide, determined to subdue her passion for Renaud, invokes La Haine, the goddess Hatred, to drive this love from her heart — only to call off the Furies in mid-spell. La Haine is offended by Armide’s shilly-shallying, and Renaud soon abandons her. The Crusade must go on, and Renaud, another Aeneas, must go to Italy to found the House of Este, Tasso’s patrons.

Armide2_creditLouisForget.gifJunichi Fukuda, Rachel List and Joy Havens of the New York Baroque Dance Company with Opera Lafayette.

Thirty years ago, when Armide was presented at Carnegie Hall by an organization calling itself the Friends of French Opera, the producers were unable to find a cast capable of performing Gluck’s declamatory melody. Among the variously maladroit styles that evening long ago, the one thoroughly enjoyable performance was given by the late Bianca Berini, an old-fashioned Verdi mezzo, portraying La Haine. Lacking scenery, Berini chewed Carnegie Hall itself down to the lath and plaster. Today, when the grand Verdi manner is almost extinct, a crop of singers capable of performing Gluck adeptly has appeared on the scene — I am thinking, in particular, of Christine Brewer’s Alceste, David Daniels’s Orfeo, Danielle de Niese’s Euridice, Vinson Cole’s Admète, Krassimira Stoyanova’s Iphigénie en Aulide, Ekaterina Gubanova’s Clytemnestre. We must now add Dominique Labelle’s Armide for Opera Lafayette.

Labelle has an unusual voice, pastel fire in a broad palette of hues, carefully displayed here to indicate haughty indifference, voluptuous flirtation, strident rage and, ultimately, despair. Gluck puts Armide through her paces, but Labelle could handle everything he tossed her way.

Stephanie Houtzeel, as La Haine, was a treat for connoisseurs of audible and visible over-the-top hauteur, but she lacked the depths of voice ideal for this contralto role. I found William Burden — a notable Pylade in Iphigénie in Tauride at the New York City Opera — pallid and uncertain in the early, heroic scenes of his role, though his pretty tenor grew in size and warmth as the amorous duets progressed and the intensity of his feelings evolved. Judith van Wanroij displayed a glossy soprano of generous size in three small roles. Nathalie Paulin, her companion in three others, gave pleasure but with less fullness and more classic restraint. Veteran William Sharp sang a pagan king of great glamour. Robert Getchell, who drew particular applause, and Darren Perry did well by the comic roles of the knights sent to reclaim the lost Renaud for the Christian cause — constantly distracted by spirits masquerading as the girls they left back home.

The orchestra takes its place as a full participant in any performance of Armide. The score is full of scene-painting: tempests rise and fall, ravines and ghoul-haunted woodlands are traversed, Furies are summoned from the depths of Hell, and sylphs glide on from some poetic Arcady. Gluck seizes every opportunity to depict activity, atmosphere and setting — curiously enough, not with the winds and brasses that most composers rely on for such things (though these are present), but almost entirely through the strings, the ways they are played, the rhythms they record or interrupt: basses slash and grumble, violins surge and tremble. Is Gluck consciously recalling, for this libretto from a previous century, that Louis XIV’s first court orchestra consisted entirely of violins (the first time in history that twenty instruments ever played in tune) and that composers were long reluctant to add flutes to such a mix, much less bassoons or horns? Or is it merely that he’s so good with strings he doesn’t need to bother with anything else? Certainly, without drowning anyone out, the music carries the singers in Armide rather than merely accompanying them. Ryan Brown’s dancing and ardent conducting inspired great melodramatic storms of sound to alternate with the elegant dances that make up so much of any French grand opera of the period.

This being the case, Opera Lafayette was content to leave the scenery and costumes (aside from the six dancers of the New York Baroque Dance Company) to Gluck’s music and our imaginations. The Rose Theater — which I estimate is barely twice the size of the jewel-box Residenz-Theater in Munich where Mozart’s Idomeneo premiered — is an ideal space for Gluck or almost any other eighteenth-century opera other than those depending on special scenic effects. Voices sound big and juicy without forcing, a small orchestra and chorus sound enormous.

Dance always played a large part in French grand opera, and reconstructing French court dance has long been Catherine Turocy’s specialty. Her dancers here enacted battling warriors, masked temptations, courting shepherds and rag-headed demons with steps that hovered between mime and formal dance. They were always entertaining and generally relevant to the story, and when masked evincing an impersonality appropriate to spirits summoned and embodied by a great and enigmatic witch.

John Yohalem

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