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Les Musiciens du Louvre | Vienna State Opera

In Review Armide Vienna lg 117
Arquez, Wiener Staatsoper’s Armide
© Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Poehn

ARMIDE AND VIENNA go way back. The Viennese have been listening to Gluck’s lovesick sorceress since 1808, when the opera was presented for the first time at Theater an der Wien, in honor of the marriage of Emperor Franz I. When a new Court Opera was inaugurated in 1869, Armide was among the first works added to its repertoire. Even so, before Marc Minkowski brought his Musiciens du Louvre to the Wiener Staatsoper for a new production this fall (seen Oct. 22), the house on the Ring had never heard Armide in the original French text by Philippe Quinault—the same libretto used by Lully nearly a century before Gluck composed his version. 

Armide, the fourth of Gluck’s reform operas (as well as his fifth work for the Paris stage) is top-shelf (Gluck once claimed it was the best thing he wrote) and increasingly popular on European stages, with recent productions in Amsterdam and Berlin. The neglect it suffers in the U.S. is almost criminal: over the past century, it has been seen only twice in New York (both times at Juilliard); the last Met performance was in 1912, with Toscanini pacing Enrico Caruso and Olive Fremstad.

Based on episodes from Torquato Tasso’s influential Crusades epic, Jerusalem Delivered, Armide is set alternatingly in lush gardens and unforgiving deserts. We got neither in Ivan Alexandre’s confused and weary staging, which was dominated by a rotating, shape-shifting assemblage of rusty cages. In what seemed like a bid for relevance, the French director recast the Sorceress/Princess of Damascus as a jihadist struggling against his homoerotic urges. This Armide was a young soldier dressed as a woman and used to honey-bait the Christians. A series of suggestive all-male dances (including something that looked like breakdancing-meets-self-defense) seemed to represent Armide’s sexual guilt and ambivalence. Had Alexandre actually managed to get his vision (carefully articulated in the program book) across, the result would have been spectacularly stupid and offensive. Instead, it was difficult to tell what was happening from one moment to the next, and this would-be provocateur woefully missed his mark, which, in the circumstances, was far preferable to having hit it. The best one could say about the staging was that it didn’t actively violate the music and some of the lighter touches were welcome. Still, the great orchestra and singers at the Wiener Staatsoper’s disposal deserved better. 

Like the works that precede it, Armide does away with the fluff that had, by Gluck’s time, turned opera seriaprimarily into a vehicle for virtuoso singers, subordinating both music and drama to performing peacocks in a way that, as Gluck wrote, “disfigured Italian opera.” Watching—or, more accurately, listening to—the performance, I felt certain that Minkowski was animated by the composer’s desire to “restrict music to its true purpose of serving the poetry.” Under his fiery yet measured direction, the radiant period musicians dispatched a majestically flowing, dramatically urgent reading. The principals were in lockstep with maestro and orchestra, ensuring that there wasn’t a single lag in the five acts of this drame héroïque

Leading the charge was the alluringly powerful French mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez. She brought flexibility, psychological nuance and sheer vocal stamina to the killer title role. Her countryman Stanislas de Barbeyrac cut a fine figure as Armide’s crusader/love Renaud. The young tenor sang with impressive heft, determination and mature tone, and he proved a worthy match for Arquez’s fire. Among the supporting roles, two recent ensemble additions were memorable: the young Israeli soprano Hila Fahima lent child-like purity both to the confidante Sidonie and to an apparition designed to bewitch a Danish Knight, a role sung with sturdy sweetness by Norwegian tenor Bror Magnus Tødenes.  —A. J. Goldmann

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