Opéra Comique 2022-23 Review: Armide
Véronique Gens & Ian Bostridge Shine in Unique Staging of Gluck WorkBy João Marcos Copertino
The main achievement of Opéra-Comique’s “Armide” production is to blend the staging with the performers’ own personas. That mixture resulted in an elevation of Gluck’s music and Quinault’s text through the performers’ engagement.
Don’t get me wrong: Lilo Baur’s staging had some problems and did not aim as high as it could. The opera, however, shone, because its performers brought a very solid approach to text and to the sound.
Gluck’s Unique Opera
For those unacquainted with the opera: more than necessarily plot-driven, “Armide” is a philosophical exploration of love, knowledge, and freedom. Each act evolves by problematizing these concepts in distinct ways, in the French tragedy tradition of the seventeenth century— the century in which Quinault wrote the libretto for Jean-Baptiste Lully’s version of “Armide”. When Gluck decided to use the very same libretto—a decision full of historical meanings—, he focused on the relationship between text and music, stressing the tragic and the theatrical.
Opéra-Comique’s production, then, navigates through the text, as if it were dramatically read, instead of acted, by its main protagonists. This is not a bad thing; quite on the contrary, in fact, it might be why it all worked so well.
The two main stars of the night, Véronique Gens and Ian Bostridge, singing Armide and Renaud, do not try to abstract themselves from their own—very recognizable—artistic personas. Their voices and stage presences underline the textual subtleties, making the experience as much about Gens and Bostridge reading Armide and Renaud’s struggles through their voices as about Armide and Renaud themselves—as if it were a song-cycle recital where people wore costumes. As result, this leading couple does not attempt to discover any youthfulness but rather builds their performances through musical maturity. “Armide” becomes, then, about how fully built individuals face love being so knowledgeable about everything else. Thus, their vocal maturity plays an essential role in the staging itself.
Big Night from the Stars
Few singers are so accomplished in the baroque repertoire as Véronique Gens, so her Armide was highly anticipated by her followers. Her voice presented a slightly wider vibrato than usual, ornates well with the staging overall. The performance grew during the evening, with a limpid pronunciation of Quinault’s alexandrines verses. At the start, as Armide presents herself in a more contained manner, Gens’ voice is dynamically constrained, avoiding sound nuances. The idea is that Armide’s knowledge prevents her from fully exploring her feelings. Alain Blanchot’s costumes make that evident: Armide wears a long dress made out of book pages in many languages that inhibits her movements and even suffocates her—it is a knowledge full of hate.
Armide’s journey leads to her freeing herself from this emotional asphyxia and learning how to sing. The confrontation with La Haine (Hate itself) in the third act, and all her singing in the final fifth act, are so well-phrased, precise in pitch and projection, that we clearly see how the character has progressed over the night. One leaves the performance convinced that only a heartbroken person can sing so well.
Ian Bostridge also thrives in singing the French alexandrine, and much of his phrasing comes from the textual inflections itself—a quality that has made him so recognizable singing lieder. It is particularly enjoyable how he fades his voice in the third act, when Armide’s demons finally lull him to sleep (“Ce gazon, cet ombrage frais, Tout m’invite au repos sous ce feuillage épais.”/ “This grass, this fresh shade, Everything invites me to rest under these thick bushes.”) Few artists could sing such phrases without failing into tackiness.
Bostridge himself presents a rather mature voice, making his Renaud artistically rich, but not juvenile. The tenor, whose sharp timbre is very recognizable, is darker and louder than it used to be, giving to his Renaud something of his own maturity. The tenor’s stridulous physical gestures—not ubiquitously enjoyed by the audience—are much contained, but not fully absent. In an interview—surprisingly in English—with France Musique, Bostridge claimed that much of his vocal change derives from working with a new voice teacher in the last five years or so. It is working.
The other roles are all well-sung—especially Edwin Crossley-Mercer’s Hidraot, who flourishes in creating memorable phrases in the first act (his words to Armide echoed in my mind a lot: “Vous êtes plus savante en mon art que moi-même”/ “You are more knowledgeable in my art than I am”). His voice is a sonorous bass-baritone to keep track of.
Another special mention goes to Anaïk Morel’s La Haine (Hate). When she enters the stage dressed as knowledge itself—her whole body is covered with book inscriptions in many different alphabets, making it possible to read the hate as source of knowledge—, it is evident that she is going to be a remarkable presence. Morel sings the role with much strength, though with some issues in the projection in the faster tempos.
The choir Les éléments, prepared by Joël Suhubiette, was superb all night. The text was beautifully pronounced, and the voices had a quite uniform sound. The orchestra Les Talents Lyriques sounded great as well. Conductor Christophe Rousset has much to be proud of with this “Armide,” especially the flute solos by Jocelyn Daubigney.
The scenarios, lighting, and staging are effective, but never extraordinarily well-done. Some solutions, though visually striking, are not very convincing as readings of the music and text—the association of hate and knowledge, for example. It was particularly hard to follow the dance movements which often happened despite, rather than with, the music.
Overall, “Armide” has a strong cast that carried the production with their own (star) personas, and strong artistic personalities. It is a type of opera-acting that works, especially in the baroque repertoire, but it is not often used nowadays. The approach has the effect of elevating and isolating the music and text, making the experience an invitation for reflection that each audience member has to undertake for him or herself.
Ps.: The translations used here are from Louis Forget and Huston Simmons, available on the Naxos recording website.