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
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 —
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,
Junichi 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 AdmËte, Krassimira Stoyanova’s IphigÈnie 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
IphigÈnie 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.
image_description=Caroline Copeland of the New York Baroque Dance Company with Opera Lafayette. [Photo by Louis Forget courtesy of Opera Lafayette]
product_title=Christoph Willibald Gluck: Armide
product_by=Armide: Dominique Labelle; Renaud: William Burden; La Haine: Stephanie Houtzeel; Sidonie: Judith van Wanroij; PhÈnice: 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.
product_id=Above: Caroline Copeland of the New York Baroque Dance Company with Opera Lafayette. [Photos by Louis Forget courtesy of Opera Lafayette]