Jean-Baptiste Lully - Armide
Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 2008
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, Robert Carsen, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Paul Agnew, Laurent Naouri, Claire Debono, Isabelle Druet, Nathan Berg, Marc Mauillon, Marc Callahan, Andrew Torise, Anders J. Dahlin
It’s difficult to know what balance to strike when putting on a production of a Baroque opera since, in many cases, the works in question are incredibly old and so rarely performed that they are indeed often being introduced for the first time in centuries to a new modern audience. You can’t go too far wrong with a straightforward staging using traditional painted backdrops and period costumes (which I’ve seen on DVD, for example, in productions of Cavalli’s La Calisto, Rameau’s Zoroastre or Landi’s Il Sant’ Alesio). While they would certainly cater to a specialist audience, it’s hard to imagine those kinds of productions reaching a larger audience or even being revived too often. I find however that William Christie, with whatever director he is working with, strikes a much better balance between fidelity to the spirit of the original Baroque opera – using period instruments of course – and making use of modern theatrical techniques that don’t so much revise the work as put it into a context that makes it more accessible to a wider audience. That’s certainly the case when working with the opera director Robert Carsen (Les Boréades), who also manages – whatever period of opera composition he is working in – to align the opera to a unique and workable concept that gets to the essence of the piece and its themes, while also managing to be a remarkable spectacle.
The bridging of the gap between the past and the present is taken quite literally in this 2008 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide (1686), the prologue traditionally added to French opera of this time to praise and glorify King Louis XIV set out as if it were a tourist excursion to Versailles, where guides describe the history of the subject. Carsen, with film director François Roussillon, even go as far as filming the entire prologue sequence on location at Versailles, with ballet sequences much like the ones traditionally seen in the intervals of the televised New Year’s Day Concerts from Vienna. It’s a device that certainly uses modern technology to extend the scope of the theatre stage and the historical context – which simply has to be taken into account in any modern representation – setting the scene and location more effectively than any painted backdrop will do. And such techniques help bring the work more to life and set it into context for a modern audience, without altering the intent of the original, then why not?
There on the bed of the King of France then, Paul Agnew falls asleep and, like in a dream, goes back to a stylised past where the story of Armide unfolds. Thereafter, there is less cleverness and a more straightforward operatic staging, but like Carsen and Christie’s work on Rameau’s Les Boréades, it’s a highly stylised, fictional period setting, with elegant courtly uniformity of design and colour schemes to suggest location and mood. It’s utterly beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, making striking use of light and colour, but working also in coordination with the tone, mood and rhythm of the music score. Christie, an American, is a recognised national treasure in France for the work he has done breathing life into the dusty, stuffy academicism of old-fashioned French Baroque opera, works his usual wonders here with Lully. Although it follows the usual conventions of the five-act Baroque opera form, with recitative, aria and ballet sequences, there’s a wonderful flow to the piece, which doesn’t have the usual stop/start rhythms, but a musical coherence and gentleness that is closer to Monteverdi than the later heavier dance rhythms of Rameau.
The content of the opera itself – a mythological story of a noble knight who resists the lure of bewitchment from a dangerous siren (Ulysees, Parsifal) – is nothing special and not particularly dramatic, but it’s given a remarkably beautiful and sensitive treatment by Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault in their consideration of the characters and the emotional journey they undergo. The followers of the sorceress Armide are celebrating her latest victory over her rivals, but she herself is not happy, as she has failed to seduce the knight Renaud, who has remained immune to her charms. Over the course of the five acts, Armide eventually succeeds in her enchantment of Renaud, but falls in love with him – even the all-powerful are subject to sentiments that may render them powerless – and this causes her great emotional distress, torn between hatred and love, between glory and wisdom. These are of course personified in characters (Laurent Naouri is a red dress-wearing Hatred), but the production also attempts to implicate the actual audience themselves into the staging, which is a little gimmicky, but effective nonetheless in achieving its intentions.
As tastefully and as pitch-perfectly as Carsen, Christie and Les Arts Florissants present the work, in complete accord with each other and within the themes, tone and tenor of the original work, the singing brings out the wonderful, beautiful human touch and emotional heart of Lully’s opera work. Stephanie d’Oustrac takes Armide through a deeply emotional journey that culminates in her famous aria at the end of Act III (“Enfin, il est en ma puissance”), but she also harmonises beautifully with Paul Agnew’s wonderful Renaud in their Act V duet (“Armide, vous m’aller quitter”). Anders J. Dahlin also has the lovely aria of the fortunate lover in Act V, who advises all to take advantage of the fleeting years of youth and happiness before they are gone forever (again reminiscent of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo). It may seem like little more than a ‘divertissement’, glorifying noble sentiments that have the power to enchant (banishing Hatred and inspiring Love), but the proof of these powers is in the enchantment of Lully’s music itself.
There are no complaints with the presentation of the opera on Blu-ray. The image is clear throughout, conveying the stunning colour schemes perfectly, with bold reds standing out against the subdued uniformity of the silver/grey and gold tones. The soundtrack in the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes gives a wonderful, warm stage to the music and the singing. There’s a fine half-hour extra feature ‘Armide at Versailles’, which has Christie and Carson talking about their approach to the production, but also has a superbly informative contribution from Benôit Dratwicki on the fascinating history of the piece, its relevance to its time and its place in the tradition of the French tragédie-lyrique.