JEAN-BAPTISTE LULLY: Armide (complete opera), Blu-ray (2011)

by | Jun 21, 2011 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

JEAN-BAPTISTE LULLY: Armide (complete opera), Blu-ray (2011)

Orchestra & Chorus of Les Arts Florissants/William Christie/ Robert Carsen(director)/Jean-Claude Gallota (choreographer)
Cast: Armide: Stéphanie d’Oustrac/Renaud: Paul Agnew/Hatred: Laurent Naouri/Glory, Phénice & Lucinde: Claire Debono/Wisdom, Sidonie & Mélisse: Isabelle Druet
Studio: Fra Musica FRA 505 (Distr. By Harmonia mundi)

Video: 16:9 Color 1080i HD

Audio: French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Subtitles: French/English/German/Spanish/Italian

Extras: “Armide at Versailles” – production documentary with Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Robert Carsen, William Christie and Benoit Dratwicki
Length: 168 minutes  (31’ extras)
Rating: ****

“Armide” was premiered at the Paris Opéra February 15, 1686, was the last tragédie lyrique on which Jean-Baptiste Lully collaborated with his favorite librettist, Philippe Quinault. To this day, “Armide” is generally considered Lully’s masterpiece. The plot is a bit convoluted but fairly easy to follow. Based on the epic by Italian poet Torquato Tasso, “Armide” is a sorceress who falls in love with the Crusader Renaud, her sworn enemy. The Prologue, set in "a palace,” is a dialogue between the goddesses Wisdom and Glory. They praise the Hero whom they both love (an overt reference to Louis XIV, Lully’s patron), and summarize the experience of Renaud, who in the end chooses Glory and Wisdom over his love for Armide. In this visually-arresting version from the 2008 production at the Théâtre des-Champs Elysées, the prologue is actually a video taken inside the Place at Versailles with Glory and Wisdom taking the chorus on a palace tour!

The drama itself revolves around Armide’s frustration over being unable to prevail over Renaud and some latent feelings of emotion for her nemesis. Armide’s uncle, the sorcerer Hidraot, urges his niece to choose a husband. Armide, at first, resists the notion unless it is someone who can conquer Renaud. Hidraot and Armide conjure up demons to put Renaud to sleep. Armide enters, intending to kill Renaud as he sleeps. She is overcome by love for him instead, and decides to spirit him away and bind him to her through sorcery. Armide finds herself struggling with the risks of success. She is troubled because her spells have brought Renaud entirely into her power but it is magic alone that binds them. Armide invokes the spirit of Hate to rescue her from her love for Renaud. Ultimately, Armide cannot give up Renaud and sends Hate away. Hate curses Armide, condemning her to the punishment of undying love. After a brief and somewhat out of context fourth act showing Renaud’s companions Ubolde and the Danish knight trying to find their lord, Armide leaves the Pleasures and a troop of Fortunate Lovers to amuse Renaud in a ballet while she returns to the Underworld to consider her situation. In her absence, Renaud’s companions do discover him and thereby break her spell. Armide returns in time to find Renaud as he leaves her, imploring him to take her with him as a captive if he will not remain as her lover. Duty and Glory overcome his feelings for her and Renaud leaves forever with his companions. Armide, left alone, laments his loss and her inescapable love in her celebrated final monologue, Le perfide Renaud me fuit ("The perfidious Renaud flees from me"). In the libretto, the demons destroy her enchanted palace, and Armide exits in a flying chariot. In this staging, Armide has her final monologue but then impales herself with her own sword.

The performances here and the production quality are quite good. In particular, I find Les Arts Florissants to be a wonderful ensemble. The instrumentation is authentic and the playing is crisp, delicate and possessed of the accurate articulation so important in this repertoire. Mr. Christie clearly has a keen ear and a stylistic sensibility for the early French Baroque; which I do enjoy a great deal. The vocal performances are equally good. In particular, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, in the role of the protagonist has a commanding presence; menacing and authoritative at times, nearly distraught at others. Paul Agnew as Renaud presents a strong but not overbearing personality with a strong moral sense as befits the character. The secondary roles are also excellent, especially Claire Debono and Isabelle Druet in multiple parts.

What I do find worth mentioning is the very clever modernistic but somewhat unsettling staging by Robert Carsen. Carsen is, by all accounts, one of the brilliant young minds in theatre these days. He has worked with Les Arts Florissants before, as in Handel’s “Alcina”. The Canadian designer has – since 1986 – staged, among other works, a Puccini cycle for the Flanders Opera; the trio of Verdi’s Shakespeare operas for Cologne; Verdi’s early "Nabucco" for Gall’s first season in Paris; and several stagings for the festival at Aix-en-Provence, including Britten’s "Midsummer Night’s Dream" and a trio of works with Christie as conductor: Handel’s "Orlando" and "Semele" and Mozart’s "Magic Flute." He also made his debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera with a staging of Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene Onegin." His use of stark contrast in color, for example, is very captivating. The cold grays and silvers of the formal, non-emotional side of Armide and her circumstances against the brilliant scarlet red of her attire, mirrored by other principal players to perhaps represent the underlying love and sexual tension. The film of Versailles, conceived by Franςois Roussillon, is a nice albeit very unconventional touch.

The elements that lost me a bit and do merit a little caveat emptor are: first, the plot touches wherein Renaud first appears as a tourist and, later, as the same tourist awakened from a dream wherein the opera takes place is, indeed, clever but may cause confusion in anyone who does not understand the original story. Additionally, there a couple of scenes that might disorient some viewers – most notably the scene where Hatred and his minions (the chorus) are all dressed just like Armide, as as if to illustrate her inner conflict (even the males in red dresses and lipstick!) Similarly, the scene where Ubolde and the Danish Knight are distracted and made to nearly get lost in the Underworld by a spectre of their own lovers. The nymph is a danced part, not sung, but very well-played by a completely nude Virginie Thomas. The point is clear and, were such a thing to actually happen, one would certainly find that distracting but the very sensual choreography is something that some might find unnecessary.

These are minor quibbles, however. This is a very fine production and speaks very well to the quality of the Fra Musica franchise and Les Arts Florissants. I am motivated to find more of their productions. William Christie is a brilliant early music expert. Robert Carsen is a gifted visionary designer, modern in his outlook and the whole package looks great and sounds wonderful. I recommend this for anyone looking to explore lesser known opera done in a creative and very atypical way.

— Daniel Coombs

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