The Opera Lafayette is a period ensemble in Washington.D.C. conducted by Ryan Brown that specializes in French Baroque Music. In 2007, the Opera Lafayette realized the highly creative idea of an "Armide project." It presented performance of the two great settings of librettist Philippe Quninault's (1635-1688) setting of "Armide." The first setting is by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632 -- 1687) composed in 1686. It was the last of many collaborations between Lully and Quinault on French Tragedie Lyrique. The second setting of Quinault's libretto was by Gluck in 1776. At the time, Gluck was resident in Paris and reset the Quinault libretto as a deliberate challenge to show he could surpass Lully's then famous score. Until recently it was rare to hear live performances of either version of "Armide." It was the experience of a lifetime to hear both Lully and Gluck at the University of Maryland with Brown. The performance of Lully used a fully professional cast while Brown used student performers from the University of Maryland in Gluck's "Armide".
This new 2-CD recording on Naxos of Lully's "Armide" by Brown and Opera Lafayette was made in conjunction with the live Armide project. The recording features mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel in the role of Armide and tenor Robert Getchell as Renaud. "Armide" is set in the 11th Century during the first Crusade and tells of the doomed love between the sorceress Armide and the hero Renaud. In the story, Armide seeks to kill Renaud after he has single-handedly freed prisoners Armide's forces have captured during battle. But she is unable to do so because she falls in love with Renaud instead. She then casts a spell on Renaud so that he loves her.
Armide soon calls upon the forces of hate and hell to free herself of her passion for Renaud but to no avail. Ultimately Renaud is rescued by two of his men and the spell is broken. He leaves Armide. The opera ends in a moment of great fury as Armide sings her aria "The false Renaud." Her enchanted palace literally comes down -- the first time a staging of this type was accomplished in an opera.
Lully's music captures the passion of the story. In early French opera, recitive sections were not clearly separated from arias. In "Armide" recitive and airs flow seamlessly into each other, surrounded in most scenes by musical preludes and especially by dances. (In the live production I saw, the New York Baroque Dance Company performed the dances. With the recording, it is necessary to use one's imagination.) The scenes in "Armide" range from the pastoral, to the military, to love scenes, entertainments, comedy (Act IV, which is cut substantially in this recording) and scenes of passion and anger, as in the appearance of "Hate" and in Armide's concluding air. There are dances throughout.
The highlights of Lully's opera include the lengthy soliloquy of Armide in Act II scene V (at the conclusion of the first CD of this set) in which she abandons her effort to kill Renaud, the love duet between Armide and Renaud in Act V, Scene 1, the Passacaille of Act V Scene 2, and Armide's great solo at the end "La Perfide Renaud."
Listeners who know this music will notice that Brown has made several cuts. Lully's version opened with a long Prologue in praise of Louis XIV which is eliminated from the recording in its entirety. In addition, Brown cut much of Act IV which details the comic misadventures of Renaud's two rescuers. (In the live performance, Brown kept both the Prologue and the entirety of Act IV.)Both in Lully's setting and in Gluck's, Act IV of Quinault's libretto tends to get in the way of the story. With these and other small cuts, this recording remains an outstanding rendition of Lully's great opera.
Both Lully's "Armide" and Gluck's enjoyed long years of success before fading into obscurity. Both operas deserve to be heard, and we are fortunate to live in a time of revived interest in early music of their eras. Listeners who become fascinated with Lully's music should also explore, if it is not already familiar, Minkowski's recording of Gluck's "Armide". Gluck was a reformer in opera. His setting of "Armide" is different in style from his predecessor's, but in some respects it is a throw-back and incorporates elements of Lully's style. "Armide" was Gluck's favorite of his own operas. Those today who know both works can engage in endless discussion of the relative merits of these two great scores. Lully's "Armide" is probably that composer's greatest work.
Listeners who already know or who want to explore an early French operatic masterpiece will love this recording of Lully's "Armide" by Ryan Brown and the Opera Lafayette. Quinault's libretto is not included, but Naxos has made the text and translation available online.