If you know the 1999 recording of Gluck’s Armide by Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre, you won't be surprised that for me, they were the undisputed stars of last night’s performance at the Wiener Staatsoper. It was the strings in particular: never have I heard such rhythmic drive and excitement sustained for such a long period, nor have I heard eighteen violinists playing the three notes of a fast ornament with such perfect synchronicity. The timbre of the period woodwind instruments was gorgeous, marred only by the occasional hesitation or flub – the flute solo in the Act V Air Sicilien, played from close to stage level, was particularly fine. Minkowski clearly knows the work backwards: although he had a score in front of him, he didn't spend a great deal of time looking at it, and didn’t bother opening it at all before the end of the overture.

<i>Armide</i> © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Armide
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

Ivan Alexandre’s new production has the merits of being interesting, different and visually striking. Whether or not you like designer Pierre-André Weitz’s aesthetics is a different question. I’m not a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic rusting industrial school of set design; the costume combination for the knights, comprising white cargo pants, Napoleonic greatcoat, medieval broadsword, Roman-shaped shield and sci-fi white plastic breastplate, didn’t do much for me, nor did the bare-torsoed men in black trousers wearing a full length quilted golden gown, open at the front, over the whole lot. In the Act V divertissements, we see the peerless knight Renaud in Armide’s chamber of pleasure. Stripped to his underpants, he is being adoringly gazed at and fawned upon by eight of these men: when they started affectionately patting a young, blonde boy, my general indifference spilled over into distinct queasiness. Nor was I particularly enthused by La Haine’s “hound of hell” – a muscular topless man being dragged around on a leash, Abu Ghraib-style.

In the programme notes, Alexandre makes a great deal of a concept that he uses in the first half the opera: the “magic” used by Armide to ensnare the crusaders is simply sex and Armide is in fact male dressed up as female. A Muslim army, Alexandre argues, could never have used women in such a role, and besides, this explains what makes Armide and Renaud’s love so utterly impossible. The idea sounds plausible on paper and it works well enough in an entertaining honey-trap dumbshow played out during the overture, but it makes a nonsense of the scene in which the elderly Hidraot pleads with Armide to go and find a husband, and in any case, Alexandre seems to abandon the idea in the second half (apart from the black trouser/golden gown look).

Gaëlle Arquez (Armide) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Gaëlle Arquez (Armide)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

There was plenty in the direction that annoyed me. Too often, singers were made to deliver lines from places in the stage which made it difficult to hear them: a particularly egregious example was when Armide realises that Renaud has just left her. Switching from tenderness to commanding “Demons, follow him”, she was made to turn away from the audience and sing the command into a doorway in the scenery, robbing it of all impact on the audience. Another was when a soft vocal line was required to compete with the noise from a smoke machine. Much action was staged which served to distract attention away from the characters actually singing, rather than to enhance them.

Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Renaud) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Renaud)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

Vocal performances were mixed. Gaëlle Arquez, in the title role, had a lot of singing to do: she kept an attractively sweet voice going with admirable stamina and showed enough variation of timbre to keep up the interest in a character who suffers from a lot of mood swings – although Arquez convinced me more when sweet and lovestruck than when unleashing the forces of hell. Stanislas de Barbeyrac, as Renaud, combined particularly well with Arquez in their Act V duet “Armide, vous m'allez quitter”. Olga Bezsmertna and Hila Fahima added good support as Armide’s acolytes Phénice and Sidonie. However, three of the singers were seriously underpowered: as La Haine (the goddess of Hatred), Stephanie Houtzeel needs to blow the roof off the house and she was a long way from doing so, while the crusaders Bror Magnus Tødenes and Gabriel Bermúdez both found it difficult to rise above the orchestra.

So an evening of thoroughly enjoyable music, but staged in a way that failed to engage me. Ultimately, Armide is a fantasy piece, and Alexandre and Weitz’s fantasies clearly don’t line up with mine.

**111