Event Date: May 2012
Review Date: 31st May 2012
Reviewed By: Françoise Dartois-Lapeyre
Review Citation: Françoise Dartois-Lapeyre, review of Lully's Armide
Date Accessed: 24th May 2013
It is probably the first time that Armide has been performed in the royal theatre at Versailles, a venue that is perfectly suited to staging the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully. And in this performance, Lully had his revenge, for this last and greatest of his tragédies lyriques was not considered worthy of Versailles by the powerful Mme de Maintenon, who, after the death of the Queen in 1683, was Louis XIV’s ‘unofficial’ wife; in fact, it was first staged on 15 February 1686 at the Royal Academy of Music, located at the Palais Royal. The subject of this five-act ‘lyric tragedie’ had been chosen by the Sun King himself, and the drama written by Philippe Quinault, after Torquato Tasso’s epic Gerusalemme Liberata. It relates how the sorceress, Armide, having fallen in love with the crusading knight, Renaud, is now on a mission to destroy him. The psychological torments of a woman torn between love and revenge, a powerful story that was taken up by other composers, suggest that Armide (Marie Le Rochois in the original performances, Peggy Kriha Dyen in this recent staging at Versailles) has always been with us, as an archetypal operatic heroine.
We are lucky in Paris to be able to enjoy a variety of performances of baroque opera, but this staging is something out of the ordinary, for it comes from Canada, a production of l’Opera Atelier Toronto, directed by Marshall Pynkoski. It had only three performances in Versailles, and we feel lucky to have seen it. With the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, directed by David Fallis, this production was not, in any sense, a reconstruction, for while it acknowledged aspects of original staging, its creators took only what historical aspects they needed to make a brilliant show for today’s spectators. The result proved to be a very pleasant evening without any dull moments.
At the heart of the opera is an intense moment when Armide cannot bring herself to stab the sleeping Renaud with a dagger: she understands that she fell in love at first sight. He succumbs to Armide’s charms in her enchanted palace, but she fears the power of her rival, Glory. Armide realises that Renaud loves her only because she exercises her supernatural powers over him, and when, thanks to the help of his friends, Renaud recovers his honour and his military glory, the Knight Ubalde and the Danish Knight, he finally abandons her. At the end, she swears vengeance, conjures up the Demons to destroy her palace, and flies off in her chariot. The performance by the haute-contre, Colin Ainsworth in the role of Renaud, was superb, as was that of the Choristers of the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles directed by Olivier Schneebeli. So, too, was the performance by João Fernandes (bass), an efficient Hidraot to Peggy Kriha Dyen’s expressive Armide.
Gerard Gauci’s designs for the production cleverly contrasted the Christian and Islamic worlds of the opera, using a marble stage floor to suggest a palace in the former, and arabesque design for the Orient in the latter. The costumes, designed by Dora Rust D’Eye, were lighter costumes than they would have been in Lully’s day, and the actors and dancers played without wigs. The costume for Love (Jack Rennie), with two wonderful golden wings, very handsome and glamorous, was one of the best. But they were not all successful; in the Act IV Inferno, Hatred (La Haine), in a pair of red tights and surrounded with six men wearing tights printed with flames, was more seductive than frightening.
Dance is included in each act, and I was delighted with their variety, including those dances with drums, and the long passacaille in the last act. But I was disappointed that the choreographer, Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg, did not take the opportunity to employ real baroque dances adapted to this lyrical tragedy. Her choreography is inventive, certainly: she mixes some typical movements of early dance - those for the wrists and elbows, for example - with romantic classical arabesques, all performed by dancers in long two-coloured flashy Napoleonic dresses. Ultimately, however, it disappoints: her dances are from many different epochs, and do not, overall, present a consistent picture. For example, the ball at Court looks like a ball in a classical ballet of the 19th century, the dance for swordsmen is very close to the Savoyard court ballet of the 16th century, and while some dancers abandon their skirts to reveal demons dancing in tights, the blindfolded Love dances in a Louis XIV style. Six women dancing with castanets and small bells, however, bringing an ancient and contemporary exotic touch, were very much enjoyed by the audience!
The rhythm of this production takes the narrative of the opera at speed, so instead of growing in a psychological progression, the audience is left with the impression that it was going from one climax to another, with a consequent strange sensation of projection into a time ‘in between’. Quite a different sensation was conveyed by the 2010 production of the work at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (available on DVD, with a powerful performance by Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Armide, and William Christie conducting the instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants), in which Jean-Claude Gallotta choreographed a number of pop clips that were used to link the work to the present. Using these, the imaginative opera producer Robert Carsen, constructed a narrative which played on comic elements and which used an alternation between past and present, with projections of modern Versailles in which groups of dancers looked like young tourists toting rucksacks, snapping with mobile phones and wearing trainers.
Both the Carsen and the Pynkoski stagings have avoided an historical production concept: in both cases, it is not a lack of respect for seventeenth-century theatre tradition, but rather, a different way to approach the repertory. If we accept that contemporary fashion takes priority over baroque expressiveness, the Pynkoski is done with some spirit and style, even if its unity is questionable and the musical performances uneven. However, stage directors would do well to remember that simply using the original stage effects in Baroque opera will produce a spectacular result!