Opéra Royal Versailles 2023 Review: Armide

Stéphane d’Oustrac Stars in Sublime Work

By João Marcos Copertino

I’m always struck by the story of “Armide.” The drama of the ancient sorceress is simultaneously transcendent and humane. The opera, after Torquato Tasso’s “Jerusalem Delivered,” ponders the prickly relationship between affect and politics, leading to the one-million-dollar question: Is his love enough? Or, even better: Is love enough?

Philippe Quinault’s libretto contraposes the idea of freedom with lovelessness. Renaud’s power relies on the fact that, even under a spell, he puts himself above any passion—it is through oddly human ways that he escapes Armide’s power. In contrast, the sorceress, otherwise so mighty, is left powerless by love and seduction. The irony is that seduction and illusion of love are the underpinnings of Armide’s magic—has she fallen into her own trap?

The strength of Quinault’s libretto led to not only one, but two Armides: Lully’s and Gluck’s. Although both have their merits, the former, presented at Opéra Royal de Versailles, is quite likely one of the most refined pieces of baroque music ever composed. Hearing such music in the magic theater of Versailles is such a luxurious experience. Lully’s dramatical tempi—the action takes its time, nothing is rushed or quickened—accords perfectly with the beautiful decor of the room.

Dominique Pitoiset’s staging stresses and translates some of the philosophical aspects of the opera with uneven success and some insights are revealing. But, the overall result seems more a flushing of meaningful signs on stage than a story being told. The opera goes from symbol to symbol without much flow. From a prologue in D.C.’s Capitol, to a final act that happens in a geriatric home where Renaud receives the announcement of Armide’s pregnancy, and then leaves her for good (not a nice man, after all).

Armide’s magic—hence her political power—comes from virtual reality goggles that create a very disturbing situation for the audience. Indeed, virtual reality is perhaps the most current name for an overarching illusion, and one that might unmoor us from reality. But, unlike the magic forest of medieval times, the illusion is seen only by the character—and nobody else. It is a case in which the audience is intentionally made blind to the staging.

The scenarios are somewhat monotonous: a torturous white auditorium lit with piercing fluorescent light. Bruno Benne’s choreography is even more eerie. The movements are mesmerizingly minimalist and the dancers are uncannily unhuman. They had doll faces or extremely plastic make-up on. It was hard to make sense of all the symbols, but I can see one enjoying such an insane and unpleasing approach as a form of art. Are we supposed to be pleased by Armide’s sorrow?

Star Power

French mezzo-soprano Stéphane d’Oustrac is restless. Her Armide is nearly intolerably human. D’Oustrac is part of that league of great singers that their singing and acting are amalgamated in a form that one cannot be understood without the other. Her acting is visceral, but extremely theatrical. It might not work on camera, but it is magnetic on the stage. From the first scene, Armide has already succumbed to an ineffable sadness. She enters the stage as the only one poorly dressed, with her lioness hair and an expression that could be in a forgotten Tiepolo pietà.

When Armide sings, a sharp tone penetrates the opera room. Her voice is strong and expressive, but one might not necessarily say that is beautiful or ugly. D’Oustrac trumps over adjectives precisely because her tone is so much her own; there no intention of making it anything other than a means to carry expression. Armide gains a sense of rawness and realness unlikely to be achieved by any other singer on that or any other stage. The French mezzo’s lower voice projects loudly, and the singer—maybe sacrificing a bit of the phrases of the musical line—stresses each French vowel sound. Somehow, I imagine that it is the only way she can speak—the transitions between Lully’s recitatives and arioso were imperceptible. Everything became part of a larger continuum of the drama. I can see an opera-lover not super enjoying d’Oustrac’s work, but it might be impossible to be indifferent to such strength of musical and scenic personality.

Renaud is sung by tenor Cyril Auvity. Specialized in the baroque repertoire, his instrument is a light and nasal voice that was a happy contrast to d’Oustrac’s. If Armide represented an earthy and dramatic figure, Renaud (in Auvity’s voice) sounded celestial. The high notes come to him with so much ease that in many moments, Auvity sings using solely his upper-register with a color palate that is refinement itself. The singer had no problem in delaying the tempi in the name of a well-rounded ornamentation or a sublime decrescendo. His final duo with d’Oustrac showed how distinguished they were from each other—as singers and as characters. They both mastered the night. However, it was a dialectical confrontation: the real and the illusion, lyricism and dramaticism, the earth and the sky.

The other roles were well sung and properly acted. A particular highlight was David Tricou’s singing the aria of the fortunate lover with such grace, emulating this sense of illusion and beauty that amuses and distracts from the eminent death in Armide’s palace.

Timothée Varon is a powerful and scary representation of Hatred. His character is the Demon in the flesh, his baryton lower notes are so intimidating that even Armide/d’Oustrac herself trembles and screams for his mercy on stage.

Tomislav Lavoie works well as Armide’s father, the strange patriarch Hidraot.

Marie Perbost and Eva Zaïcik impress not only by their vocal beauty, but also their great interaction together. Their voices—by their own craft—progressively sounded more and more like each other, promoting a sense of musical doppelgänger on stage and with much dramatic gain.

Vincent Dumestre elicits great music from Le Poème harmonique and Dijon Opera’s choir. The tempi were vivid; in such a long opera, Dumestre surfs the room’s great acoustics and gives the audience a deeply enjoyable sense of refinement.


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