Armide was the final collaboration between Lully and librettist
Philippe Quinault. Though it wasn’t the final work written by
Lully, it was the final tragédie en musique. It was premiered
in 1686 at the public theatre in the Palais Royal; the premiere
having being much postponed owing to both Lully’s and Louis XIV’s
illnesses. In fact, Louis never saw Armide, the combination
of Lully’s involvement in a sex scandal - with a young man - and
the court’s increasing religiosity meant that Louis distanced
himself from his favourite composer.
appeared on CD before. In fact Philippe Herreweghe has recorded
it twice but neither of these seems to be available at the moment.
This new disc from Opera Lafayette has the virtue of being based
on live performances - not staged but with dancers - which were
critically well received.
The opera’s plot,
taken from Tasso, deals with the sorceress Armide’s love for
the knight, Renaud.
It opens with her
father, Hidraot (Francois Loup) and her attendants Phenice and
Sidonie (Ann Monoyios and Miriam Dubrow) encouraging her to
take a husband. She forswears love unless she can get a lover
as brave as Renaud, whose forces have been attacking them.
Act 2 is taken up with Armide using magic to put Renaud (Robert
Getchell) to sleep. Instead of killing him she falls hopelessly
in love. In Act 3 she summons up La Haine/Hate (William Sharp)
to help her give up her love. La Haine fails and leaves, cursing
Armide. In Act 4, Renaud’s followers Ubalde (Francois Loup)
and the Danish Knight (Tony Boutte) are searching for Renaud
and are held up by magical temptations put in their way by Armide.
Finally Renaud is rescued by Ubalde and the Danish knight leaving
Armide forever cursed by love.
The five act structure
manages to include a substantial dance divertissement in each
act. In the first act it is just general jollity, but in act
2 the divertissement depicts Armide’s nymphs putting Renaud
to sleep. Act 3 is the scene with La Haine’s followers. Act
4 is almost entirely divertissement as the two knights encounter
all sorts of magical creatures. Then finally in Act 5 Armide,
full of dark foreboding, leaves Renaud to be entertained by
a troop of Pleasures and Fortunate Lovers. Lully and Quinault’s
trick was to tie these quite strongly into the plot and to provide
a main character whose strong emotions keep the opera’s plot
on course. Without a strong Armide, the opera would degenerate
into a group of disparate dance episodes.
The eagle-eyed will
have spotted that there is something missing from the above
synopsis – the Prologue. For this performance conductor Ryan
Brown has cut the opera so that it lasts less than 2 hours whereas
Philippe Herreweghe’s uncut version lasts some 30 minutes longer.
This involves the complete removal of the prologue and the trimming
of Act 4. Ever since the work’s first performance there have
been complaints that Act 4 was repetitious and lacking any relevance
to the action. On his first recording Herreweghe cut it entirely.
On this disc Ryan Brown has cut the final scene in the Act as
well as performing minor surgery on some of the other divertissements.
His major change is the removal of the entire prologue, which
it could be argued is an essential part of the genre of tragédie
On my initial audition
of this recording my first reaction was to note how perky the
performance was. Ryan Brown’s account of the work seems entirely
to lack the weighty gravity that you expect from a tragédie
lyrique. In some ways, this is entirely to the good as the
dance numbers really do dance. But in the more serious sung
pieces and even the most tragic ones the singing is often underpinned
by an accompaniment which is entirely too lively and jaunty
for my taste. In the great scene in Act 3, where Armide summons
La Haine, this spirit is entirely too happy in his work; he
and his followers come over as a very jolly lot. Some of this
is to do with the rhythmical foundation of the accompaniment,
the length of dotted rhythms, but Brown seems to be using quite
a small instrumental group.
All this had me
scurrying back to Herreweghe’s second (1993) recording which,
though technically unavailable, does crop up for sale on the
internet. Herreweghe uses a rather bigger instrumental group,
but more importantly his whole interpretation is weightier.
His accompaniments are just as pointed as those by Brown, but
Herreweghe and his group imbue Lully’s rhythms with a massiveness
which underpins the performance exactly as it should.
Turning to the singers,
Brown’s cast are a capable and talented bunch and if you buy
this recording you will not have too much to complain about
in the vocal department. Stephanie Houtzeel conveys much of
Armide’s tragedy, though in her important Act 2 monologue she
does not move as much as Guillaumette Laurens for Herreweghe.
More importantly, Houtzeel’s vocal delivery is rather stylised,
with minimal vibrato and a strange squeezing effect on the individual
notes. As a vocal effect it is striking but for a whole opera
it starts to pall. I kept longing for Laurens straight delivery
and super French declamation. Another point is that Houtzeel
is a mezzo whereas Laurens is a soprano. There are occasional
moments when the role seems to go out of Houtzeel’s comfort
as Renaud has relatively small and passive part. But Getchell
has an impressive high tenor voice which mellifluously gets
round Lully’s lines though there are moments when he seems to
get a bit tired. Though I have long been an admirer of Howard
Crook, who is the Renaud on Herreweghe’s disc, in fairness I
must admit that Getchell is entirely at home in the part on
The remainder of
the cast are creditable and support admirably. Francois Loup,
who appears as Hidrao and Ubalde, has a rather dry voice and
delivers his part efficiently but without stirring you; likewise
William Sharp who entirely fails to thrill as La Haine. Their
counterparts on the Herreweghe recording are possessed of admirably
resonant voices and deliver Lully’s lines in thrilling manner.
Apart from vocal
characteristics, the biggest difference between the performances
on the two discs is in the character of their declamation of
Lully’s vocal lines. Herreweghe’s cast have a stylish and vivid
way in this tricky field, injecting their vocal lines with passion
and power. Brown’s cast, on the other hand, do not quite have
the measure of how powerful Lully’s music can be in tandem with
Quinault’s words. Or perhaps this is all a matter of style and
I should simply accept that this new disc performs Lully in
a lighter modern manner.
The CD booklet contains
a good article and plot summary but you have to go to the Naxos
web-site for the libretto.
As this is the only
recording available I would like to be more enthusiastic. At
Naxos price you can afford to pay out £10 for this set and still
wait around for a better one to come along. My recommendation
is to go hunting for Herreweghe’s disc, where for my money,
the style is better and far more apposite. Brown and his forces
give you a creditable and approachable version of the opera;
Herreweghe gives you a powerfully moving one.