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Gluck Sells Out the Concert Hall

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Gluck, Armide, Les musiciens du Louvre, M. Minkowski

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Lully, Armide, Opera Lafayette, R. Brown
To celebrate its 15th anniversary, Opera Lafayette, the talented and adventurous company specializing in French opera of the grand siècle, rented the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for a performance of Gluck's Armide. With tickets priced to move at $15, the performance quickly sold out, even after initial plans not to seat people in the highest tier were abandoned. This seems to provide some solid evidence that if you program interesting music (other than the same dull chestnuts), perform it well, and offer it at ticket prices that are not prohibitively expensive, people will come. It is a heartening sign that the star over the operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck rises further with this performance, too. Any audience that can stomach a Mozart opera will likely find that Gluck goes down just as easily, and nothing could please me more that his operas are apparently on an ascendancy. This summer, during an interview with Santa Fe Opera General Director Charles MacKay, I told him that I hoped their performance of Gluck's Alceste would inaugurate an annual tradition in which the company replaced its regular Mozart opera with one by Gluck. In related news, Washington National Opera will finally get around to staging its first Gluck opera next season with Iphigénie en Tauride.

Armide (check out the online score of the 1783 edition scanned by the University of North Texas Libraries) is one of the lesser-known of Gluck's operas, judging from the number of folks who commented casually that Monday night's performance was the first time time they had heard it. With the opera's 1777 premiere, Gluck famously stood on the shoulders of giants, setting a libretto adapted (quite faithfully, although cutting the sycophantic prelude) from the brilliant one written by Philippe Quinault for Lully. It is an opera that I studied at some length for my doctoral dissertation (reading not for the faint of heart) and that I have written about here before, in reviews of the lone recording, by Marc Minkowski, and in a 2007 staging by Maryland Opera Studio. Opera Lafayette's Ryan Brown conducted that performance, presented in conjunction with his company's performance of Lully's Armide the same year, but it was hardly surprising to see Opera Lafayette return to the work this season, this time with much more appropriate dancing for the ballet music, performed by their regular partner, Catherine Turocy's New York Baroque Dance Company.

Brown felt compelled to make some cuts, to keep the performance time to three hours with an intermission: Minkowski made cuts, too, and his recording fits onto two CDs. The decision makes sense in terms of a live performance. , but one hopes that the group has set aside some time to record the music cut in concert, for the sake of their recording of the work, planned with Naxos. (I will reserve final judgment until I hear Opera Lafayette's recording, of course, but having all the music would be another consideration likely to tip my recommendation for a recording of the opera away from Minkowski.) [I have since been informed that this performance was not being recorded for Naxos.--Ed.] What they did perform sounded quite good, with Brown's conducting at his accustomed alternation of fluidity and crisp attack. There was only one noticeable blip, at the transition into Esprits de haine, a minor flaw that can be replaced with the tape from the New York performance. The strings played with an impressively tight sense of ensemble, especially in the many fast passages pulsating with tremolos, recalling the Dance of the Furies from Orphée et Eurydice, for example. The best solo performance came from flutist Colin St. Martin, who stood for his part in the sommeil scene ("Plus j'observe ces lieux"). He sounded just as good in the Air Sicilien in Act V, following Gluck's indication that the piece "doit être joué avec beaucoup d'expression."

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Opera Lafayette marks 15th anniversary with sold-out performance in a big space (Washington Post, February 3)

Anthony Tommasini, Love and Sorcery in a Religious War (New York Times, February 4)
The singing was quite good, too, a fine balance achieved by placing the orchestra and singers on a platform at the back of the stage, which also left a space for the dancers at the apron. Tenor William Burden sounded much better as Renaud than he did as Vere in Santa Fe's Billy Budd two summers ago, with a heroic ping at the top of his voice, a cleaner attack and less noticeable scoop, and only a few of the highest notes that showed some strain. He was seconded by strong performances from tenor Robert Getchell, whose Artémidore and Chevalier Danois were high points, and the versatile baritone Darren Perry as Aronte and Ubalde. William Sharp sang well as Hidraot, but it was hard not to miss the obvious choice for this role, François Loup, who performs regularly with the company. He would have added some needed heft and a more venerable presence, but perhaps the part lay too high.

Among the women, the tall, confident Stephanie Houtzeel stole the show as La Haine, singing with a fierce, barbed tone and malicious presence, quite in keeping with what we have heard from her in the title role of Lully's Armide and in Handel and Haydn with Opera Lafayette. Gluck's Armide, however, lies much higher, and while soprano Dominique Labelle had a dramatic, cutting edge to her tone, the top was disappointingly strained, turning acidic. (With the orchestra tuned to A430, those high notes are still pretty high.) In the supporting cast, Dutch soprano Judith van Wanroij's Sidonie stood out for the clarion resonance of her voice, overshadowing the lighter but still lovely Nathalie Paulin as Phénice. The talented chorus sang well, with a present sound that stayed remarkably unified from their unfortunately distant position in the chorister seats above the stage.

Opera Lafayette will close its 15th anniversary season with the modern American premiere of Philidor's Sancho Pança (May 24, 7:30 pm), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.


Varun said...

Two things that bothered me that you didn't mention:

-Ryan Brown sped up noticeably towards the tail of Act 1, and again Act 2, which left me thinking some of the singers were short on time to catch their breaths. He was consistent after the intermission, far as I could tell.

-As we discussed, Dominique didn't seem to know the role very well. The little bit at the end when she came down to interact with the dancers was a really refreshing change of pace from the repeated quick stares at the score. Rather unfortunate - I really enjoyed her performance in Le Déserteur about a year ago, but here she seemed a little fish out of water-ish.

Charles T. Downey said...

There were some pieces taken at quite a clip, I agree. Labelle is a fine singer, but this is not her role, at least not this time.

MUSE said...

The musicians of the Louvre are also quite magnificent. Perhaps they should come over some time.