After Cavalli’s Ercole Amante in 2009 and Handel’s Deidamia in 2011, De Nederlandse Opera is continuing its exploration of obscure Baroque operas with Gluck’s Armide, until 27 October.

Armide © Monika Rittershaus
Armide
© Monika Rittershaus

I always wondered why Armide was Gluck’s own favourite work. Surely, his French versions of Alceste and Orphée et Eurydice, and his late masterpiece Iphigénie en Tauride, are all much more appealing both dramatically and musically. I like to think that the main reason for Gluck’s preference was his sheer enjoyment at breaking the rules. He composed Armide using a libretto by Philippe Quinault that had been written almost a century earlier for Lully’s own Armide. Lully and Quinault being considered as the founding fathers of the French style known as tragédie lyrique, there must have been some kind of unwritten rule protecting their works. And Gluck pretty much put his foot in it by composing his new opera using the very same lyrics Lully had turned into music for his masterpiece.

The plot of Armide is based on Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (“Jerusalem Delivered”), a mythified tale of the First Crusade and Godfried of Bouillon’s knights. In a nutshell: Armide, a sorceress and the niece of the Muslim king of Damascus, has sworn to destroy the Crusaders and especially Renaud, the most valiant of all Christian knights. But at the moment when she is about to kill him in his sleep, she weakens and falls in love with him. Torn between guilt and love, she casts a spell to seduce him. When his fellow knights arrive to free him and break the spell, Renaud returns to his real love: glory. Armide is at first struck with grief, but soon swears vengeance and takes off on her flaming chariot, surrounded by dragons and demons. This is a Baroque, opera after all!

No flaming dragons in Barrie Kosky’s very contemporary vision, but breathtaking images perfectly suited to such a mythical tale. The piece starts in a modest desert landscape, bare but for a single shrub. Then, as Renaud enters Armide’s domain, the stage slowly opens up to reveal a stylized garden drowned in mist and pouring rain. The combination of the minimalistic sets (Katrin Lea Tag), superb lighting which often makes use of reflections in water (Frank Evin), and movements of the crowd on the stage, make the rest of the performance an exciting visual experience. The climax, in Act V, is a stunning tableau vivant including actors in various stages of (un)dress, a white horse smeared with blood and a storm of pink rose petals. The result is both beautiful and nightmarish: Armide’s world, created by witchcraft, is only idyllic on the surface.

Karina Gauvin, a much admired interpreter of Handel and Vivaldi, sings her first Gluck role in this production, and what a role it is! Armide is pretty much on the stage all of the time, and the character goes through a full array of emotions – from doubt when confronted with love for the first time, to fury when she is abandoned. The Canadian soprano gives a superb performance throughout. Her voice is always round and creamy. Each phrase is delicately coloured, which perhaps goes slightly to the detriment of the clarity of consonants, but who cares: her sound is beautifully seductive, as indeed a sorceress’ spell.

Tenor Frédéric Antoun, also a French Canadian, is the perfect Renaud: his voice is both warm and virile and his French diction superb. His aria “Plus j’observe ces lieux”, when the stage opens and he enters Armide’s garden, is arguably the highlight of the evening.

Of the smaller roles, I particularly liked Karin Strobos (Phénice), Ana Quintans (Sidonie and a demon in the guise of Mélisse) and Henk Neven (Ubalde).

The Nederlands Kamerorkest gave a fine performance but I found Ivor Bolton’s direction not always sympathetic with the singers on the stage, although this might have had something to do with the acoustics. The choir of De Nederlandse Opera doesn’t cease to surprise: not only their singing and mastery of French diction is superb, but their acting in this demanding piece of stage direction is admirable.

This visually impressive Armide finishes in great style a series of productions of French operas by Gluck at De Nederlandse Opera that started with Orphée in 1990.