Saturday, 12 August 2017
A seventeenth century temptress lures reviewer Peter Barker into a tempestuous evening of operatic delight.
Music by Jean-Baptiste Lully
Words and Text by Philippe Quinault
The Battlefield Of Love
When a Middle-Eastern warrior princess meets a Western soldier, we somehow suspect no good will come of it.
And so it turns out but, perhaps surprisingly, this is the plot of an elegant yet passionate seventeenth century Baroque opera, one of the latest offerings in the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn Festival.
Armide, here in an enchanting revival by the enterprising Ensemble OrQuesta and Brazilian director Márcio da Silva, is generally recognized as one of Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lully's masterpieces composd towards the end of his career in 1686.
With librettist and playwright Philippe Quinault, Lully had already developed a pioneering complexity of character development through declamatory recitative and soliloquies.
Armide is an Islamic warrior princess who, possessing irresistible sexual charms for men while remaining immune to love's dart, defeats and captures knights of The Crusade.
Nevertheless love conquers the temptress for the first time when she encounters the Christian knight Renaud, who alone amongst the crusaders, remains unvanquished by her.
Armide, who is also a sorceress, summons up all her powers of enchantment to bind Renaud to her, but her passion is real while he is bound to her by sorcery alone.
Through Armide's torment, this opera becomes an exquisite Baroque treatise on the nature of desire with the conflict between vengeance and love framed within the innovative tragédie lyrique form.
Performomh in French with English surtitles, Rosemary Carlton-Willis makes a captivating Armide with a fierce yet tender performance demonstrating intelligence and vocal range.
As Renaud, Guy Withers brings charming presence, a bright tenor and precise lyrical characterisation.
Da Silva, as well as directing, displays a fine baritone in the role of La Haine, the demon of Hate invoked by Armide to overcome her feelings of love with vengeance.
As director he also shows resourcefulness on an obviously limited budget. Candlelight, for example, ingeniously reveals an underworld of monsters during the travails and terrifying journey of two knights, Ubalde of baritone John Holland-Avery and the Danish Knight the tenor Hiroshi Kanazawa.
The set and props are meagre - two battered chairs, a tarnished candelabra and a throw cast over several stage plinths convey Armide's fantasy world.
Nevertheless, the minimal staging is more than made up by a memorable musical performance. This includes the small six-piece orchestra of harpsichord, archlute, violin, viola, gamba and cello conducted by Matthew Morgan.
The Arcola production is a rare outing for a thrilling opera which in the seventeenth century proved a crowd pleaser and broke new ground with its psychological portrayal of Armide's dilemma.
Ensemble OrQuesta's version does justice to this fascinating piece with accomplished instrumentals and vocals. With only one performance left, this comes highly recommended and it's a green light for a night of rapture and tragedy.