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Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632–1687)
Armide (1686) [121.49]
Armide – Stephanie Houtzeel (mezzo)
Renaud – Robert Getchell (tenor)
Hidraot; Ubalde – Francois Loup (bass)
Artemidore; La Haine – William Sharp (baritone)
Phenice; Lucinde – Ann Monoyios (soprano)
Sidonie – Miriam Dubrow (soprano)
Le Chevaier danois; Un Amant fortune – Tony Boutte (tenor)
Aronte – Darren Perry (baritone)
Une Bergère héroique – Adria McCulloch (soprano)
Une Naiade – Tara McCredie (soprano)
Opera Lafayette/Ryan Brown
rec. 2-5 February 2007, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, USA
NAXOS 8.660209-10 [55.33 + 66.16]
Experience Classicsonline

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.

Armide has 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 en musique.

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 zone.

Robert Getchell 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 this disc.

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. 

Robert Hugill 



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