Swans Commentary » swans.com September 10, 2012  



Summer Operas -- From Lully To Chabrier
Lully's Armide at Glimmerglass


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - September 10, 2012)   Like many of his Italian contemporaries and followers Jean Baptiste Lully, born Giovanni Battista Lulli (28 November 1632 - 22 March 1687), left Italy to go up north to France, center of all the action, where the absolute Sun King Louis XIV was creating a sumptuous home for the arts in Versailles and other venues. GBL quickly took on his French name, JBL, and joined the artistic melting pot that his adopted country was to become for the next 300 years. Through the centuries and even today Lully is still enthroned as the king of French Baroque opera. Even at the royal wedding of Louis XVI and his new Austrian bride, Marie Antoinette, in 1770, it was felt that nothing but the Lully opera, Perseus, one of his greatest spectacles, could celebrate the occasion properly even though the composer had been dead for some 83 years.

Opera had been, of course, invented in Italy around 1600 and many of its practitioners, like Lully, traveled to other countries to spread the word, while many northern composers like Handel, Gluck, and Mozart had to make their hegira southward to the land of operatic truth to learn their trade on the spot. What made French opera, as Lully set it up, so different from its Italian model were two things: a story-telling text and the ballet. The Italians, true to their mellifluous language, preferred to sing a seemingly endless reiteration and repetition of a text made up of favored vowel sounds and syllables, while the French preferred telling an audience a philosophical, moralistic, or amorous story including any voluminous number of words it took to get the story across and the chosen point made. The point of Lully's Armide, as presented by the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in July-August of this year, seemed to be that love is slavery and a snare, but that the self-controlled individual with a higher purpose could deny love to him/herself and thus evade its temptations and instead acquire for her/himself that higher good. Another problem that the heroine Armide faced, and which she never quite solved, was how to exact retribution and carry through her vengeful impulses upon a hero whom she now loved.

Perhaps Freud could have invented an Armida complex to go along with his other more famous complex, the Oedipus. A person undergoing this syndrome would have ever kept her/himself from falling in love because he/she feared that ensuing slavery to another which it would exact. This seems to be the problem for both protagonists of this opera as it opens: Armide, the Muslim witch-enchantress and her marked-down prey, Renaud, the heroic and too often successful leader of the invading crusading Christians, a hero not to be distracted from his mission of overthrowing the occupying Muslims. Armide's power as put forth in Quinault's libretto, derived from Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, is simply her power to make men fall in love with her and thus distract them from their otherwise militaristic and heroic duties. But she herself declares that she has never fallen in love and has no intention of ever allowing herself to do so. Reynaud likewise declares a similar intention.

Men and women being so ensnared by love have ever been a theme of the ancients and the moderns, both mythologically and historically. Odysseus was warned of Circe and the water sirens; Antony was ensnared by Cleopatra, etc. But an equally recurrent myth/history is that of two lovers, one of whom renounces and deserts the other one to perform a higher duty. Ariadne was left on Naxos by Theseus; and in Armide, of the two protagonists, Armide and Renaud, having once fallen in love with each other much against their previous vows and inclinations, Renaud is called back to military duty by his crusading comrades in arms. He agrees to their entreaties and deserts Armide, who kills herself rather than live without him.

(This theme of Armida, by the way, was treated by two other operatic achievers, Josef Haydn and Giaocchino Rossini. In Rossini's version, recently revived at the Metropolitan Opera for Renee Fleming, it takes no fewer than six tenors [count them!] to fill out the plot. This may explain why this opera is so rarely staged!)

This renunciation of love found its way into 19th-century opera as well. Alberich renounces the Rhinemaidens, his unattainable love objects in Wagner's Das Rheingold, and grabs for the world-mastering gold instead. And in direct antithesis to Wagner's music-dramatic world, in Georges Bizet's realistic Carmen (so admired by Nietzsche after his disillusionment with Wagner) this theme reappears in the second act. Here the love-ensnared Don Jose is about to return to his regiment after hearing its trumpet call and desert Carmen at Lilas Pastia's. But for the good of the plot Carmen convinces Don Jose to change his mind, desert his regiment, and join her mountain life of smuggling. Armide was not so successful with Renaud in her opera. He did not change his mind; he left, and Armide ended it all. I wonder if librettists Meilhac and Halevy had the Armide story at the back of their minds as they drew this cynical low-life parody of it in the second act of Carmen.

There is even a recurrence of this theme in George Bernard Shaw's fifth and last completed novel An Unsocial Socialist of 1885-87, written when the author was 29-31. In Shaw's novel, the hero, Sidney Trefusis, an upper class but avowed and crusading socialist, is in love with his wife, Henrietta, so much so that he finds it distracting and interfering with his political work. So he secretly deserts Henrietta and hides out in the countryside in disguise and under an assumed name. Henrietta eventually tracks him down but in her exertions contracts a life-ending disease that causes her to suffer a similar fate to her predecessor Armide, likewise without her being able to resume loving her husband. I wonder if this old story was in Shaw's mind when he wrote his version of it.

At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario this summer a 20th-century anti-Armide was presented, the play A Man and Some Women of 1914 by the Fabian Socialist New Woman playwright, Githa Sowerby. In this play the hero, Richard, and the heroine, Jessica, finally declare their love for each other. But Jessica refuses out of love to marry and join Richard in his life-affirming trip to the wilds of Brazil. She deliberately sends him off alone to his higher purpose without saddling him once more with a parasitic woman like the other ones he's been tied down to since the beginning of the play.

But, of course, being French Baroque opera, Armide's story has to be told not only by singers but by ballet dancers. In contrast to later, typically-Italian operas that feature ballet sequences solely in isolated interpolations, each episode in Lully's story is told by an accompanying or postludic ballet event. And such good choreography and execution the visiting Toronto Opera Atelier ensemble displayed. Each long-held, stressed note of most of the phrases was accompanied by a suspended top of a leap into the air, thus reinforcing the sense and rhythm of the music as all good choreography should do. The Toronto company brought their production of Armide to Glimmerglass, with their excellent orchestra, conductor, singers, and dancers.

Armide was Peggy Kriha Dye, Renaud was Colin Ainsworth, the excellent conductor was David Fallis, and the superb choreographer was Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. As Francesca Zambello, Glimmerglass' directress, announced to the audience before the show, "It's taken this opera from 1686 to 2012 to arrive at Glimmerglass, but it's finally here."

Ballet got its extra push in France because the teenage Louis XIV joined a ballet troupe on stage as an amateur fellow executor. (He was said to have had attractive legs.) And as a continuing patron of this particular art, Louis gave dance a long life and a high reputation in his country until well after his death. I remember attending a performance of an opera written by a successor to Lully, Jean Phillippe Rameau. The opera, given a few seasons ago at New York's Lincoln Center City Opera, was Platee of 1745. I was amazed to observe that, though an opera, Platee consisted of what seemed to me 50% dance sequences like any modern Broadway musical.

About the middle of the 19th century the by-then-venerable traditions of French ballet were transferred wholesale to the Russian imperial court in St. Petersburg by composers such as the Frenchman Adolphe Adam, the Viennese Ludwig Minkus, and the two Italians, Cesare Pugni and Riccardo Drigo. On this sturdy basis native Russians such as Tchaikovsky, Glazunoff, Gliere, Assafaieff, and Prokofieff could build; not to mention Diaghilev's Ballet Russe in Paris, later aka the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. (Neither version of the BR ever performed in Russia itself.) Even Today, thanks to Louis XIV, Lully, and their Franco/Russian successors, if you want great classical ballet look to videos or guest appearances of St. Petersburg's Kirov, or Moscow's Bolshoi ballet companies.

As to Armide's music itself, in typical fashion, story-telling and plot-unfolding recitatives alternate with colorful and thoughtful arias, duets, and ensembles, both vocal and balletic, often characterized by rousing fanfares reflecting the military goings-on of the plot. But for me the most striking event in the opera's music was the celebrated love duet between Armide and Reynaud in Act V. Here soprano and tenor sing along harmonizing in beautiful thirds such as in any 19th-century romantic Italian opera you'd care to name. The composer's inborn Italianate nature seems to come out here in this music that presciently displays the sort of style his future native countrymen were about to invent some 150 years later.

Glimmerglass is to be congratulated on bringing us this Toronto guest ensemble's authentic and vigorous presentation of a Baroque opera classic. Sad to say, this very Festival brought us some seasons ago under a previous and different management, an incredibly butchered version of another Baroque opera classic, Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1607. This opera had been a part of Glimmerglass's otherwise admirable "Orpheus Season" of 2007 featuring Orfeo, Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, and Pillip Glass's Orpheus after the Jean Cocteau movie, all of which I saw but only the last three of which I enjoyed. In Orfeo, despite the best efforts of an excellent Baroque orchestra and conductor, the ghastly settings and inappropriate goings-on on stage left the observer with a highly distorted and inappropriate memory of what a real and authentic Orfeo might have actually looked like. Thanks be to all the Dei ex Machinae of French Baroque opera for bringing us a real and wonderful Armide in 2012.


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Published September 10, 2012