This ensemble is certainly one to watch, as indeed are the other operatic and symphonic enterprises for which Márcio da Silva is responsible. Armide deserves to pop-up in many different venues around the country, and dare I say it, in France too!
Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide (1686) dates from the high-water mark of the reign of Louis XIV for whom Lully acted as court-composer. Like so much Baroque opera it takes a historical episode and mythologises it in search of abstract lessons based on the resolution of various moral conflicts. In this case an episode from the history of the Crusades is the starting point for an investigation of the nature of desire and how that is affected by the presence of war and the quest for secular glory.
Many opera goers, even hard core ones, find French Baroque heavy-going. It need not be so, and we know that to be the case for this opera in particular thanks to the superb filmed version by Robert Carsen and the forces of Les Arts Florissants, which anyone can see on YouTube. Yes, there are conventions which need to be addressed, embraced or circumvented, but with imagination all is possible.
Ensemble OrQuesta Baroque, directed by Márcio da Silva, brings plenty of that to their production at Grimeborn. This is a long evening, but for the greater part it passes without longueurs. There are five acts and a prologue, so a pacey performance style with quick transitions from each of the shortish scenes to another is essential. There is a minimalist set – a platform with rugs, a couple of chairs, and a candelabrum- which leaves the focus on ritualised movement, and the music itself. A seven-piece Baroque band is placed on the suspended platform, all directed by Matthew Morgan, who also sings. Members of the cast provide a chorus underneath the platform and the action plays out in a deliberately darkened setting, with much emphasis on candlelight and brightly contrasted costumes.
After a prologue in which Glory and Wisdom personified present their rival claims we proceed to the narrative. Armide (Rosemary Carlton-Willis) and Renaud (Guy Withers) are the leading warriors of rival armies (the original opera makes nothing of the Muslim versus Christian implications of this pairing, and so, rightly, this production keeps things abstracted). Both are sworn to pursue military glory and consider themselves immune to love. Inevitably, they come to confront each other. Armide declines the chance to kill Renaud, discovers love, and summons up spirits from the Underworld to place him under her spell. The rest of the opera wrestles with the consequences of this sleight of hand.
Armide builds a palace of enchantments in which she can isolate herself with the bewitched Renaud, but remains unsatisfied. She invokes the embodiment of Hatred, as a way of freeing herself from the toils of unequal, engineered love, but then cannot bring herself to accept his proposals, and receives his curse instead. Ultimately, followers of Renaud free him from subjugation and he abandons Armide, citing duty and his warlike mission. She is left in despair amid the ruins of her enchanted palace, her only comfort being thoughts of vengeance.
Thus summarised this opera may seem remote from contemporary concerns, but as performed here, there are many points upon which we can reflect to advantage. In the baroque aesthetic desire is viewed as a kind of self-enslavement and deprivation of liberty and free will, which is to be avoided, wherever possible. Just as the potion in Tristan and Isolde is a plot device signifying something much more psychologically complex so it is not too far an extension to see the actual enchantments and demonic intervention as an externalised and instrumental opening up of the process of falling in love.
The overmastering point is that once desire and love become obsessive then true self-understanding is lost. That is Armide’s fatal mistake – the self-deceit of thinking that by a ‘baleful enchantment’ she can indirectly subdue Renaud just as effectively as in battle.
This is presented as a moral error that seems to be on a recognisable wave-length with a modern conception of how we deceive ourselves in love with a sense of false consciousness, driven by fear and self-doubt. We cannot wish the world to be other than it is just by the self-assertion that prevails in the battlefield or workplace. Wishful thinking steers the ship onto the rocks as surely in 2017 as in 1986. And, unlike Armide, we all too often also embrace Hatred in the form of self-exculpation!
But nor do Duty and Glory win out in conventional terms? Not really. No one is a winner here – Renaud is a loser too, and the final lesson is a sobering one: that our times of greatest happiness may in fact simply be those when we were most deluded or distracted or when we were fully wrapped up in our work or personal destiny. Lully and his librettist Quinault knew Racine and Corneille, and their Stoic ethics are never far away from the point of final repose in these works.
Musically there are real riches here which resonate to the full in this acoustic where even the lute and gamba can be heard in detail. Most obviously there are plenty of complex orchestral interludes and ballet sequences that are more than descriptive and are heading towards being symphonic in a manner than anticipates Haydn. The depiction of the beauty of the countryside where Renaud submits to enchantment is especially lovely. There are some deliciously seductive duets for Armide and Renaud, several dramatic concerted choruses, and in the conflict between Armide and Hatred, the kind of quirky, ambiguously erotic encounter that you find often in Purcell. The opera is one of Lully’s very last, and sums up his contribution to the genre of tragédie-lyrique.
Among the performances the two leads are dramatically convincing and for the greater part on top of the vocal challenges. There is superbly characterful singing from Ashley Adams and Fiona Hymns, as Armide’s attendants, and stylish cameos from da Silva himself, dressed wholly in scarlet as Hatred, and John Holland-Avery in two separate roles. It should be noted that the production is in part double-cast, and these comments refer only to some of the first cast on press night.
Last but not least there is a truly excellent, absorbing programme which gives all the background one needs to understand the production and the particular character of this genre. If only the long established opera houses were as thorough and well-organised in their research! This ensemble is certainly one to watch, as indeed are the other operatic and symphonic enterprises for which Márcio da Silva is responsible. Armide deserves to pop-up in many different venues around the country, and dare I say it, in France too!