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ClassicsOnline Home » LULLY, J.: Armide (Opera Lafayette, 2007)
Armide represents the culmination of the long and fruitful career of Jean-Baptiste Lully, the most powerful musician at the court of Louis XIV and the first important composer of French opera. Though not his final composition, Armide was his last complete tragédie en musique and the last work he wrote in collaboration with librettist Philippe Quinault. It was an instant and enduring success: a crowd-pleaser at its initial production and a perennial favourite of audiences and critics in the 18th century.
By David Denton
Though Lully was to write a large number of works for the stage, it was with Armide, completed in the year before his untimely death, that he reached the zenith of his creativity. Without his presence the work was subsequently to undergo many changes—often well meaning—so that it was passed down in a different shape to the original concept. Though he became the most influential musician in 17th century France, he was born in Italy and christened Jean-Baptiste de Lulli. His claim to high parentage was untrue, his parents so poor that a monk took care of him, and it was he who taught the boy the basics of playing the violin. He arrived in Paris as a teenager with the aim of teaching Italian to Mademoiselle de Montpensier, but as she did not take to him, he was fortunate to be heard, by people with money, playing the violin. More tuition and he arrived at the court of the young Louis XIV employed as an accomplished composer and dancer, and he was to compose ballets that he danced with Louis. His association with the King opened influential doors, and in 1672 was allowed to form a theatre in Paris while his rival was ordered to close. There he took French opera to rival the best Italian music, and today 16 of those operas still survive. The story of Armide involves the love of the sorcerer, Armide, for the bravest of the Christian Knights, Renaud, whom she ensnares. His knights come to rescue him, and when brought back to his senses he resolves to leave her enchanted palace. In anger she is on the point of destroying him, but love triumphs and instead chooses to destroy her palace and all that inhabit it. The present performance from the American group, Opera Lafayette, base their recording on Lois Rosow’s new edition of the original 1686 score. It uses period instruments that bring an originality I find most rewarding, the sound much different to anything I have heard in Lully before. We have not the slightest idea of the vocal quality used by singers in the 17th century, but it was most probably very different to that which we hear in this performance, as it is very much of our time. From a technical point of view it is accomplished, Stephanie Houtzeel’s Armide being very persuasive, while Robert Getchell is a gentle lyric tenor of real quality. Maybe their efforts at a passable shake is still in the making. The remainder of a large cast—some coming from the Lafayette’s admirable chorus—is more than pleasurable. The performance is conducted by Ryan Brown, who keeps the music moving at a nice pulse and avoids the present Baroque predilection for taking everything fast. You do feel the sense of a ‘live’ presentation in the way the engineers have recorded the opera.
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687)
The Tragedy of Armide
Armide - Stephanie Houtzeel, Mezzo-soprano
Renaud - Robert Getchell, Tenor
Hidraot; Ubalde - François Loup, Bass
Artémidore; La Haine - William Sharp, Baritone
Phénice; Lucinde - Ann Monoyios, Soprano
Sidonie - Miriam Dubrow, Soprano
Le Chevalier danois; Un Amant fortuné - Tony Boutté, Tenor
Aronte - Darren Perry, Baritone
Une Bergère héroïque - Adria McCulloch, Soprano
Une Naïade - Tara McCredie, Soprano
Opera Lafayette • Ryan Brown
Lully’s Armide had a rich and varied performance history at the Paris Opéra during the eighty years following its début in 1686. Those in charge of the productions, while holding Lully and his librettist Quinault in the highest esteem and responding with deep enthusiasm to this extraordinary opera, did not hesitate to alter the score and libretto in ways they thought likely to ensure the success of the work. Performers today owe an immense debt of gratitude to scholars who, like Lois Rosow in the case of Armide, have created editions and done research which carefully reconstruct for us the original circumstances of a musical première and provide us with details on the subsequent historical treatments of these works.
For our recording, we have departed from the original 1686 version of Armide in some places. The changes reflect practical concerns, the differences inherent in listening to a recording versus seeing a production, and dramatic issues addressed in the work’s own eighteenth century performance history.
The first important historical changes in the performance practice of the work centered around the much disputed relevance of Act IV and in particular its scene iv, during which the knight Ubalde is tempted by Mélisse, mirroring the previous scenes in which Le Chevalier danois is tempted by Lucinde. Lecerf de la Viéville declared in 1705 that “one must cut” this scene, and it was eliminated from productions as early as 1697. Rebel and Francoeur, inspecteurs généraux of the Opéra in the mid-eighteenth century, cut from a point in scene iii, though they also lengthened the previous divertissement. Our choice was simply to go from the third air of scene iii directly to the entr’acte before Act V, moving smoothly from one triple metre in C major to another. This addresses some of the larger dramatic concerns of repetitiveness within Act IV and reduces the extensive recitative which would otherwise both end Act IV and begin Act V.
We slightly shortened the divertissement in Act II, scene iv, by deleting one of the Bergère’s airs. In the eighteenth century Rebel and Francoeur also made adjustments to this scene, though somewhat differently and in the context of other stylistic changes. In the dances of various divertissements and entr’actes we have eliminated several repeats, most significantly in the Act I Sarabandes which, seen fully choreographed in a stage production, would probably prove mesmerizing and give a grand symmetry to the scene, but seem too repetitive for a recording alone.
The final but largest change is that we move directly from the Ouverture to the drama of Act I, suppressing the Prologue, a paean to Louis XIV featuring the allegorical characters of Wisdom and Glory. Historically the Prologue was only dropped in 1761, at which time artistic and political sensibilities had changed considerably. Still, the public seemed enthusiastic for this dramatic tale, and in 1777 Gluck produced his own Armide without a prologue, which otherwise followed Quinault’s libretto almost exactly and went on to have as impressive a performance history in the nineteenth century as Lully’s version did in the eighteenth century. Both historically and in our own version we are reminded that each generation of performers bequeaths something of its experience to the next, and that interpreting masterpieces such as Armide is a living, transformative experience.
Armide: Lully’s ultimate triumph
Armide represents the culmination of the long and fruitful career of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), the most powerful musician at the court of Louis XIV and the first important composer of French opera. Though not his final composition, Armide was his last complete tragédie en musique and the last work he wrote in collaboration with librettist Philippe Quinault. It was an instant and enduring success: a crowd-pleaser at its initial production and a perennial favorite of audiences and critics in the eighteenth century.
The première, originally intended for the royal court at Versailles but repeatedly postponed because both Lully and the king were ill, took place in Paris on 15 February 1686, at Lully’s public theatre in the Palais-Royal. A week later Henry Baud de Sainte-Frique described the event evocatively in a letter to a Tuscan court official in Florence: “There was such a large crowd that no more could enter at all, and more than 100 people were on the stage at a louis each. All the loges held ten people each. You know that seven is enough to fill them and is uncomfortably crowded. The amphitheatre and the parterre and the gallery were so jumbled that the size of the crowd there could not be taken in without astonishment. They claim that Lully received 10,000 francs that day.” The Mercure galant reported that “the words were found very worthy of their author, which goes without saying since he excels in works of this nature. Everyone was charmed by the orchestra and the music. The scenery seemed grand and new, and especially the theatre that breaks apart. It is the invention of Monsieur Bérain, designer of the Cabinet du Roy. There were loud exclamations over the beauty of all of the parts that make up the fifth act of this opera.” (The “theatre that breaks apart”, an image commemorated in the frontispiece of the published libretto, was Armide’s magical palace, destroyed by demons at her command at the end of the opera.) When Lully published the score later that year, he began his letter of dedication to the king by alluding to the scheduling difficulties at Versailles: “Of all the tragedies that I have set to music, here is the one with which the public has seemed the most satisfied. It is a show that draws crowds, and none seen before now has received more applause. Nevertheless, of all my works it is the one I deem the least happy since it has not yet had the advantage of appearing before Your Majesty… .” Louis apparently never saw Armide. It seems that Lully’s involvement in a sex scandal the previous winter, coupled with the general atmosphere of austerity and religiosity at court in the late 1680s, was enough to make the king distance himself from his formerly favourite composer and from the Opéra in Paris.
Yet Louis XIV had selected the subject for the libretto: “Quinault took three opera stories for the coming winter to the king at Madame de Montespan’s… . The king found all three to his liking and chose that of Armide.” While most of Quinault’s tragédies en musique have mythological plots, taken mainly from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the last three (Amadis, Roland, Armide) present tales of medieval chivalry, taken from the romances of Montalvo, Ariosto, and Tasso. On the one hand, this shift toward tales of the Crusades is understandable: after the queen’s death in 1683, the king had grown increasingly preoccupied by religion and morality. On the other, the stories told in these operas represent archetypes familiar from classical mythology: the enchantress Armide and warrior Renaud could just as well be Circe and Ulysses. In any case, Torquato Tasso’s epic Gerusalemme liberata, the source for the story of Armida and Rinaldo, was well known and popular—it had been translated into French several times between 1595 and 1671—and the Armida tale in particular had been dramatized in important French court ballets earlier in the century.
In fact, the story lent itself well to political allegory. The opera begins with an allegorical prologue (not on this recording), praising the wise and glorious rule of the king and referring obliquely to a “monster” that he had vanquished. The political event uppermost in the minds of Parisians at the beginning of 1686 was the revocation of the Edict of Nantes on 22 October 1685, the climax of years of persecution of the Huguenots. Thus, the “monster” was Protestantism, demonized here as in all officially approved literature. Metaphorically this theme may be read in the tragedy itself, the virtuous European Crusader Renaud symbolizing Catholic France and the seductive Middle Eastern princess-magician Armide symbolizing Protestant heresy.
Yet Renaud is not the principal protagonist of the opera. Against the backdrop of conventional royal allegory, the heroine Armide wages a fierce internal battle between love and vengeance, and it is her story that dominates the plot. Discussing the brilliant singingactress Marie (“Marthe”) Le Rochois, who created the rôle, the 18th-century biographer Evrard Titon du Tillet wrote, “What rapture to see her in the fifth scene of the second act… , dagger in hand, ready to pierce the breast of Renaud, asleep on a bed of greenery! Fury animated her at the sight of him, love came and seized her heart; the one and the other affected her in turn. Pity and tenderness followed, and love was the winner.” Jean-Laurent Lecerf de la Viéville, writing in 1705 about a revival that had taken place around a decade after the première, remarked, “When I picture la Rochois, that little woman who was no longer young, capped with black hair, and armed with a black cane with a ribbon the colour of fire, moving about that great stage, which she filled almost by herself, and drawing from her chest from time to time marvellous bursts of song, I assure you that I shiver again.” In the end, neither Armide’s beauty and power nor the army of demons at her command (who make several appearances disguised as gentle pastoral figures) can save her from herself. According to Lecerf, after the final curtain, “the spectator, filled with passion that has grown until this final moment…returns home profoundly moved in spite of himself, dreaming, chagrined at Armide’s unhappiness.”
Lully’s music is characterized by the artful arrangement of linked and nested segments, much like the plantings in a formal French garden. Miniature songs and short instrumental introductions mingle with passages of melodious, expressive recitative to form large-scale patterned scene structures. The five acts were performed without break, with short musical entr’actes accompanying spectacular changes of scenery. The ballet episodes in each act, whether civic ceremony, scene of pastoral enchantment, or the horrifying ritual of Hatred and her followers, brought troupes of performers together in communal action, the dancers representing the bodies of the collective characters and the chorus representing their voices. Twice the libretto calls for elaborate stage machinery: in the entr’acte connecting Acts II and III, during which demons disguised as gentle zephyrs carry Armide and the sleeping Renaud away from the pastoral riverbank; and at the end of the opera, where Armide’s magical palace crumbles to the ground. Throughout the opera the orchestra paints character and mood—as in the murmuring flutes and muted strings of Renaud’s enchanted sleep, the wide leaps and jagged rhythms of Armide’s entrance with dagger in hand, the growling repetitive bass line of Hatred’s ceremony, and the hypnotic, seductive continuous variations over an endlessly cycling harmonic pattern in the extended dance (a passacaille) in Act V.
The edition is based mainly on the score printed under Lully’s direction in 1686, with additional information drawn from two manuscript violin parts (the only parts to survive from the original orchestral materials), the libretto printed for the première, and a group of vocal and instrumental parts that survive from early 18th-century productions of Armide in Paris. For this performance editorial percussion has been added.
Portions of this commentary first appeared in J.-B. Lully, Oeuvres complètes, ser. 3, vol. 14 (Hildesheim, 2003); reproduced by permission of the Association Lully and Georg Olms Verlag.
Act I: Armide, a warrior princess and sorceress, is praised by her confidantes Phénice and Sidonie for her victory over the Crusaders whom she has taken captive. However, Armide expresses her anger and frustration because she has not been able to prevail over Renaud, the most valiant of the Christian knights. Armide’s uncle, Hidraot, urges his niece to choose a husband, but she declares that were she to yield to love she would only consider someone who could conquer Renaud. Amidst the celebration of Armide’s victory, Aronte, who was guarding the prisoners, enters mortally wounded, announcing the prisoners’ rescue by Renaud. Armide and Hidroat swear that such an enemy will not escape their vengeance.
Act II: Artémidore, one of the knights rescued by Renaud, praises his rescuer and asks him to flee the place where Armide rules. Renaud assures Artémidore that his heart is safe from Armide’s enchantment. Hidraot and Armide conjure up demons to put Renaud to sleep. The hero admires his surroundings and sits down to rest. The demons, in the shape of nymphs and shepherds, weave their spells over Renaud. Armide enters, intending to kill Renaud as he sleeps. Instead, she is overcome by love for him, and decides that her triumph, thanks to her spells, would be to bring Renaud into her power and have him love her. She asks the demons to transform themselves into zephyrs to carry her and Renaud far away.
Act III: Armide deplores the conquest of her heart by Renaud. Phénice and Sidonie urge Armide to abandon herself to love, but Armide is troubled because, while she is in love with him, he is bound to her only by her spells. Armide invokes the spirit of Hate to rescue her from her love for Renaud. Hate and her followers perform a powerful invocation, but Armide cannot give up Renaud, and she sends Hate away. Hate curses Armide, condemning her to the punishment of endless love.
Act IV: Two of Renaud’s companions, Ubalde and the Danish Knight, are searching for their hero to rescue him from Armide. They manage to resist the temptations and dangerous delights set in their path by Armide.
Act V: Armide and Renaud declare their passion but Armide is haunted by a dark foreboding, and wishes to consult the Underworld. She retires and leaves the Pleasures and a troop of Fortunate Lovers to amuse Renaud. In her absence, Ubalde and the Danish Knight discover Renaud and break Armide’s spell. She returns in time to confront Renaud as he leaves, imploring him to take her with him as a captive if he will not remain as her lover. For Renaud, Duty and Glory demand that he leave her, but he pities her fate. Armide, left alone, laments her love and the horror of her torment, and declares that the hope of vengence is all that remains to her. Armide then bids the demons destroy her enchanted palace, hoping to bury forever her cursed love.
Opera Lafayette would like to thank The Florence Gould Foundation, The Marpat Foundation, Areva, Inc., Pernod Ricard USA, Jerald and Alice Clark, Bill and Cari Gradison, and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for their help in making this recording possible. Opera Lafayette is also deeply grateful to Marie-Hélène Forget for her extraordinary efforts to help bring music of the French Baroque to the United States.
The French libretto and an English translation can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/660209.htm
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LULLY, J.: Armide (Opera Lafayette, 2007)