“Of all the tragedies that I have set to music, here is the one with which the public has seemed the most satisfied. It is a show that draws crowds, and none seen before now has received more applause. Nevertheless, of all my works it is the one I deem the least happy since it has not yet had the advantage of appearing before Your Majesty.”
Beneath the prescribed measure of self-promotion implicit in Lully’s dedication to his last published score, lies an unmistakable chord of bitterness and hurt. He and Louis XIV had been kindred spirits at court since both were young men, drawn together by their mutual love of dance and performance. It was the King who had elevated the clever 29-year old Florentine, born Giovanni Battista Lulli, a miller’s son, to the lofty post of Surintendant de la musique de la chambre du roy and granted him French citizenship. It was the King who had lent the full weight of royal patronage to Lully’s wholly original tragédies en musique, a remarkable total of 14 proto grand operas, bred in the ancient classics, emotionally charged, spectacularly theatrical. And it was the King who had assiduously avoided the spectacular 1686 premiere of Lully’s most lavish masterpiece to date, Armide.
Louis’ reasons for distancing himself from the work are unclear. The historical record brims with rumour and conjecture. A sex scandal in the palace with Lully at its epicentre. An unflattering correspondence of sorceress heroine and King’s mistress, the much resented Madame de Montespan, widely whispered to be a witch. Any whiff of impropriety, however vague, would likely have been enough to seriously strain the bond between the increasingly isolated monarch and the ambitious architect of French opera. The glory of the Sun King’s favour had slipped behind a cloud of suspicion. But Armide’s brilliance would not be eclipsed.
Celebrating its 30th Anniversary Season, Canada’s preeminent early opera interpreter, Opera Atelier, boldly underscores Lully’s legacy with an explosive presentation of the composer’s fiery magnum opus. Previously presented in 2005 and again in 2012, director Marshall Pynkoski’s glowing period-inspired production, polished and recharged, lights up the Elgin Theatre’s gilded stage, brighter and more striking than ever.
Plucked from Italian poet Torquato Tasso’s rambling 16th century epic Gerusalemme liberata, longtime Lully collaborator, librettist Philippe Quinault, crafted an exotic saga. Lust and violence, the supernatural and the mortal, twisted fairytale themes unravel and intertwine in sinuous combinations.
The Crusades. The inhabitants of Damascus are jubilant. Armide, warrior princess and sorceress, has magically vanquished a force of invading Christian knights and taken them prisoner. The Muslims’ rescuer, however, is displeased, infuriated by her own inability to prevail over Renaud, the infidels’ mighty champion. Tortured by a recurring dream of annihilation at his hands, Armide seeks comfort from her ladies-in-waiting, Phénice and Sidonie. Neither understands her apprehension.
Hidraot, Armide’s magician uncle, ruler of the city, urges Armide to choose a husband. The desert stronghold must have heirs. Armide will not be forced. If she is to surrender her affections to anyone, it will only be to he who can slay Renaud. Suddenly, Arontes, a Muslim captain, bursts into Hidraot’s throne room, battered and bloodied. Renaud has freed the Christian captives. Hidraot and Armide vow revenge.
Encountering Renaud in the Crusader camp, Artémidore, a knight, pleads with his valiant rescuer to withdraw beyond the reach of Armide’s pervasive spells. Renaud insists that he is impervious to her enchantment. Hidraot and Armide secretly conjure a host of demons disguised as nymphs and shepherds to lull him into a deep sleep. Armide draws her dagger and approaches. Blade poised, Armide is overcome with a startling surge of passion. Much to her frustration, she finds herself unable to strike. Quickly reassessing her strategy, the lovesick sorceress decides to bewitch Renaud instead and commands her demon minions to transport her and her captive to her magic palace.
Surrounded by lush, luxurious gardens, Armide battles with despair. Phénice and Sidonie plead with her to surrender to the delights of the heart but Armide knows all too cruelly that Renaud’s devotion is a sham. Hate is summoned to rid her of all frailty and tenderness. Cursing a vicious curse, the fiend sets to work, raining savage blows on gentle winged Amor. Armide is aghast. Hate is dismissed. Angered, the monster vanishes but not before condemning Armide to the eternal torment of endless love.
Two of Renaud’s companions, the Chevalier Danois and Ubalde, scour the desert for their leader. Armed with a magic mirror and sceptre, the two evade a dangerously alluring troop of Armide’s guardian sprites.
Armide and Renaud declare their mutual desire but Armide is more and more tortured by her heated coup de foudre. While she consults with her allies in the Underworld, Renaud, alone in her palace, re-encounters Ubalde and the Danish Knight who have at last found him. Armide’s spell is broken. Duty and Glory call. Renaud bids Armide farewell on her return. Armide collapses in anguish. Renaud brusquely departs. Armide re-awakens and, torn between sorrow and rage, destroys her palace and every illusion of pleasure it ever contained.
Unlike Lully’s other tragédies lyriques, the story of Armide focuses, not on an idealized action hero but on a strong, dynamic heroine trapped in a tangle of all too natural impulses. A seducer of enemies oblivious to seduction, an enchantress immune to sexual enchantment, her existence and ultimately her fate is heaped with irony. The opera’s omnipotent super sorceress may command the legions of Love and Hate but she is undone by the irresistible power of her own emotions. Renaud’s psychic portrait by comparison is strikingly dimensionless, virtually flat, a fundamentally mechanical character, closed and guarded even among his comrades-in-arms. A colossal dose of magic is required to revive his humanity, transforming him from unfeeling war machine to caring lover.
Our sympathies and clearly those of Lully and Quinault, cultural naïveté of the age aside, rest solidly with the Muslim warrior princess. An unmistakable air of vitality surrounds her and indeed the entire Damascene court, an impression made graphically evident by set designer Gerard Gauci’s exotic panels of flowing Persian calligraphy and Islamic landscape motifs. Love and loss play out under the brilliant golden desert sun of Bonnie Beecher’s evocative lighting. East and West meet in a vibrant aesthetic.
Magicians abound in this Armide, on stage and behind the scenes. None commands more attention than Pynkoski and his co-artistic director, choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. Since its founding in 1985, Opera Atelier has seldom strayed far from the formal conventions of classic Baroque performance. Stylized posture and pose, grand gesture, fluid ballet, combined with up to date theatrical production techniques have created a strong, uniquely identifiable brand. This Armide, both familiar and enlivening, is arguably the company’s ultimate statement. Whisking his cast through his brisk trademark athletic blocking, Pynkoski unleashes a flood of action and movement. The pacing, already animated, is further heightened by Zingg’s whirls and eddies of costumed dancers, the women dressed in Technicolor gowns, modern leotards for men. The opera’s celebrated Act IV Passacaille, an unapologetic exhibition of virtuoso ballons and grand jetés, is gloriously irrepressible.
Conducting members of a trim Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, early music specialist David Fallis gives Lully’s lush, luxurious score a thorough airing. Intense compact arias emerge from highly expressive recitatives creating a rich pattern of interlaced music. Crisp entr’actes accompany sensational scene changes. Colour and mood are boldly evoked. Tremulous violins signal enchanted sleep. Vicious orchestral growls underline Hate’s ceremony. A remarkable double continuo section, twin harpsichords, theorbos and cellos flanking opposite sides of the stage, lend unexpected surround sound bass line effects.
Singing Armide’s namesake heroine, frequent Opera Atelier contributing artist Peggy Kriha Dye unleashes an instrument of exceptional dexterity. Warm and burnished with more than a trace of profound mezzo tints, astonishingly brilliant and effervescent at her top, the versatile American soprano sings with great beauty and strength. French opera seria resolutely shuns extravagant coloratura in favour of absolute tonal clarity and refinement. Acute emotion is keenly expressed with intense, forthright humanity. Dye’s vocal approach superbly embodies the genre. Lully’s lovely Act III air, Ah! si la liberté me doit être ravie (“If I must be robbed of happiness”) is sung with exquisite poignancy.
Appearing as Renaud, tenor Colin Ainsworth thrills, bringing an enormous depth of sensitivity to his challenging, bisected role of warring knight and co-opted lover. It is an extraordinary performance, physically raffish, vocally sublime. Ainsworth struts and preens, languishes and surrenders, his song styling superbly in sync with Lully’s musical dramaturgy. This is a big robust voice fully capable of expressing a vast sweep of narration and sentiment yet embodying more than ample purity and translucence to strike high into Baroque haut-contre territory. Lully bestows more recitatives than arias on his love-deranged hero and only one duet engagement, the gorgeous Armide, vous m’allez quitter! (“Armide, you will leave me!”). Ainsworth’s lyricism is heartbreaking.
Carla Huhtanen and Meghan Lindsay are Armide’s handmaidens, Phénice and Sidonie doubling as shepherdess and nymph, voices sparkling, playful and tender. Stephen Hegedus and Daniel Belcher lend baritonal gravitas as Hidraot and Hate. Aaron Ferguson and Olivier Laquerre are Armide’s blundering duo, Chevaliers Danois and Ubalde.
The Tafelmusik Chamber Choir under the direction of Ivars Taurins provides critical vocal mass during the opera’s many charming ballets, voicing a flamboyant collection of spirited demons, furies and sprites. Showcased in Act V as les plaisirs, the ensemble celebrates the bittersweet delights of youthful love in Lully’s touching anthem, Les plaisirs on choisi pour asile (“The pleasures have chosen as refuge”). Time stands still.
Surely early opera can get no better than this. Opera Atelier’s current revival of Armide is flawless.