An Enlightened Staging of Gluck’s ‘Armide’, a Tale of a Tough Woman Scorned at L’Opéra Comique Paris.

Opera Comique’s 2022 Production of Armide by Gluck

This weekend I travelled to Paris to the newly restored Opéra Comique where a new production of Gluck’s Armide has opened. You could be forgiven for not ever having heard of Armide. It was conceived in the 17th century with a score by Lully before Gluck came up with a new musical setting in the late 18th century. 

Taken from a highly regarded libretto by the French dramatist Philippe Quinault (1635-1688), Armide it is essentially a love story. In the background we have the religious crusades. Armide, a warrior princess, a sorceress, has an enemy Renaud, a Christian knight. Unlike all her male enemies, Renaud is indifferent to her charms. 

Gluck took up the gauntlet of rewriting Armide aged sixty. By then he was a composer of great renown, and a bit of a rebel with big plans to reform opera. Stiff singers, vocal acrobatics and ornamentation were banished from the stage. For Gluck, it was all about acting, singing and moving naturally. Supported by Marie Antoinette, (France’s future queen, who had been a former pupil of Gluck in Vienna) Gluck came over to Paris and presented his new vision. 

In Gluck’s Armide which came to the French stage in 1777, it was all about the drama. Gluck was a stickler for the conveying of emotion and demanded that attention be paid to the text.

The French must have been ready for this radical reimagining and Armide was a hit and was played often throughout the eighteenth century, the last performance was given in Paris in 1905.

Scrolling up to November 5th 2022, Armide’s first night at L’Opéra Comique, there was a definite buzz in the air.  Gluck’s Armide has only been performed several times in Europe in recent years, I doubt very few Parisians in the audience knew what to expect.

Christophe Rousset, Armide’s Musical Director is however known for his rare or forgotten opera productions. When I had interviewed him a few days before the opening of Armide, he had spoken of his relish of presenting his own vision of the work, working closely with a stage director who he respects, in this case Lilo Baur.

That evening I saw the fruits of Rousset’s and Baur’s labours and that of their team. It was all about attention to detail and uppermost in their vision it seemed, was the focus on the drama. Gluck would have approved.

Nothing in Bruno de Lavenère’s set was arbitrary. Armide, at the opening of the opera, is dressed by handmaidens. She is put on a pedestal (literally) Gold strips are added to the hem of her dress. Her exaggerated elongated garb gives her a freakish, witch-like quality. And yes, Armide does feel like a freak in the narrative. She knows how to seduce, but she is unmarried, and her latest victim, Renaud, is insensitive to her charms. To accentuate her regal quality, neon strips radiate out from the top of her head.

Remarkable was the enchanted forest of pleasures where Armide lures Renaud. A tree is endowed with voluminous roots, which form crannies for sprites or demons to hide in. It was part Midsummer Night’s Dream, part Oriental paradise, with its Arabic-inspired screen, reminding us of the importance of faith but also of secrecy and protection. This is a hidden forest of pleasures, magic, and love. On the rim of the forest, war rages. The lighting on the sprites’, dancers’ bodies created wonderful orangey-pink flesh tones which recalled Poussin’s dancers.

Elegance, fluidity, harmony, all this was brought out by Baur’s intelligent stage direction and choreography. Bodies interweave, disappear chameleon-like, and reappear like magic. What an exceptional way of suggesting a paradise with no boundaries.

One of the most exquisite moments was an extended musical interlude in which the cast rolled luxuriantly along the forest floor to the music – quite mesmerising. Vocally, it was Renaud’s rendition of ‘Plus j’observe les lieux/ The more I observe this place’, which enchanted, where the knight celebrates nature. Ian Bostridge made a gallant beau and his clear, modulated singing meant that he was a noble match for the regal Véronique Gens in the role of Armide.

Armide fights falling in love. She is of course disarmed by the strength of her emotion. Véronique Gens was exceptional in the role of the warrior princess. Though this is not an opera of identifiable arias in the Verdi mode, her voice possessed that beautiful, highly expressive, mournful quality, which goes straight to the heart.

Conductor, Christophe Rousset, judiciously steered the singers, the musicians from his exceptional ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, to the dramatic finale, gradually ratcheting up the tension and the volume, right to the intense dénouement where Gens’s anguish was one of the most searing I have heard in opera. 

This was a high calibre cohesive production with a strong cast which also showcased some exciting new young singers, particularly Philippe Estèphe’s beautiful baritone, as Ubalde.

KH

Performances of Armide remaining: 7, 9, 11, 15 November 2022 8pm

13 November 3pm at L’Opéra Comique, Paris.

Booking: https://bit.ly/3zRoC5X

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