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Gluck's Armide, Maryland Opera Studio

Adria McCulloch and Eric Sampson as Armide and Renaud, Gluck's Armide, Maryland Opera Studio, photo © Cory Weaver 2007
Adria McCulloch and Eric Sampson as Armide and Renaud, Gluck's Armide, Maryland Opera Studio, photo © Cory Weaver 2007
What was I just saying about good collegiate opera companies? After mounting a fine, if slightly over-the-top production of Conrad Susa's modern opera Transformations last weekend, the University of Maryland Opera Studio has done another good thing. Why stage yet another chestnut like everyone else when you can showcase your young singers in something of much greater interest that major companies are too craven to try? Showing an awareness of a major trend among European opera houses, if not yet really catching on in the United States, Maryland has now partnered with a historically informed performance ensemble, the orchestra of Opera Lafayette and conductor Ryan Brown. This production of Gluck's Armide (1777) is the follow-up to the Armide Project, which began with Brown's concert performance of Lully's Armide (1686) in February. The Maryland program was richly rewarded, as even the last of four performances, a Sunday matinee, was well attended.

Tara McCredie (La Haine), Adria McCulloch (Armide), and Eric Sampson (Renaud) in Gluck's Armide, Maryland Opera Studio, photo © Cory Weaver 2007
Tara McCredie (La Haine), Adria McCulloch (Armide), and Eric Sampson (Renaud) in Gluck's Armide, Maryland Opera Studio, photo © Cory Weaver 2007
Gluck adapted the libretto of the Lully opera, by Philippe Quinault, in response to a challenge during one of the opera controversies in Paris. In the pamphlet war between the gluckistes and the piccinistes, Gluck was heralded by his supporters, who included Queen Marie-Antoinette, as the champion of French opera. Partisans of Italian composers Niccolò Piccinni and Antonio Sacchini in turn criticized Gluck's operas in favor of Italian ones. As part of the battle for heirship to the French grand siècle, composers on both sides created operas derived from the same sources that Lully had used and even created operas using the same libretti as Lully. In a book called Le due Armide (Florence, 1991), Italian scholar Mario Armellini showed that Gluck had actually been planning to make a new opera on the libretto of Lully's Roland (1685). When he learned that Piccinni and Marmontel were already planning their own version of Roland, eventually premiered in 1778, he turned instead to Armide. Sacchini later piled on with a sequel to Lully's Armide (one of three) called Renaud (1783).

For more information, if you are a masochist, see my doctoral dissertation on operas and other musical theater derived from the epics of Ariosto and Tasso. While I was writing my dissertation, I would have appreciated the opportunities I later had, of hearing Gluck's Armide in a concert performance in Paris and especially owning the superb recording of this opera made by Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre. This is the first time I have seen the opera staged. There are many similarities between the Lully and Gluck versions, musically, that is, beyond the fact that they use the same libretto. (Gluck chose not to set the sycophantic prelude that Lully's opera addressed quite specifically to Louis XIV.)

Other Reviews:

Ronni Reich, This 'Armide' Proves to Be a Choice Blend (Washington Post, April 22)

Karren L. Alenier, The Cruelty of Armide's Beauty (The Dresser, April 21)
Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Gluck, Armide, M. Delunsch, L. Naouri, E. Podleś, M. Kožená, Les Musiciens du Louvre, M. Minkowski
A comparison of the two scores, especially when performed live, reveals that neither opera is entirely superior to the other. Lully's dramatic setting of Act II, scene 5 ("Enfin il est en ma puissance") is more electrifying than Gluck's. On the other hand, Gluck's setting of Act III, scenes 3 to 5, when Armide calls on La Haine to give her the strength to overcome her love for Renaud and kill him, is much stronger than Lully's, not least because La Haine is recast from a male role to a mezzo-soprano. One of the most charming scenes in Lully's opera, the sommeil, in which Renaud is charmed into a magical sleep by Armide's demons, is if not prettier in Gluck's version then just as lovely. It is a testament to Armide's powers (and Gluck's) that my concert companion for this afternoon performance, Master Ionarts, was sound asleep after just a few measures and slept soundly until intermission.

Ryan Brown led his orchestra through an energetic performance, perhaps a little too strong for some of the smaller voices. Soprano Adria McCulloch was vocally potent and ravishing to behold in the revealing costumes by Martha Mann. She had her best scenes with Tara McCredie's venemous La Haine, as Armide's spiteful alter-ego, and the robust Darren Perry as Hidraot but seemed mismatched with Eric Sampson's Renaud. The singers in minor roles pleased less, and the pathetic attempt to stage the dance music bordered on ridiculous. The production directed by Leon Major, although elegantly minimalistic, may have exaggerated the sense of unevenness between Armide and Renaud, represented by two opposing visual worlds. Armide seems to have been the leader of a cult for leather and bondage freaks -- the natural prop for this Armide to carry would have been a riding crop -- and Renaud was an apparently curious member of a beret-wearing para-militia. Except for the well-acted intensity of McCulloch's Armide, the staging was quickly forgotten. Still, it is impossible to overstate the importance of this production, because it provided the chance to see an operatic rarity live on the stage and in a compelling performance.

The Maryland Opera Studio will conclude its successful season with a revue of opera scenes (April 26 and 27) at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.


Akimon Azuki said...

I had a great time on Saturday, even though me and my companions spent almost as much time sitting in the Beltway traffic as we had at the opera itself, and we managed to miss the beginning scenes - too bad Gluck didn't need to suck up to the royalty- these Sun King tributes are great for latecomers ;)
The question I had was, the stage at this particular theater - is it permanently on the incline, or was this a Baroque night special..? I did cringe a lot seeing the singers trudge up and down that thing. I did not think that all the dancing was ridiculous, but the stage setting was certainly contributing to the general awkwardness of movements. Music, singing (ladies especially), lighting and costumes more than made up for it. La Haine's red lined coat- first class!

Zain said...

Actually, the stage is normally not raked in the Kay. As a male chorus member, I felt particularly relieved in not having to dance on that thing with heels.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for the comments. Yes, the raked set definitely made things more awkward for the dancers.