Armide returns to Toronto

Opera Atelier’s production of Lully’s Armide is coming back to Toronto, the first stop in an international tour.  After a week in Toronto, May takes them to Royal Opéra, Versailles, followed by a summertime sojourn at Glimmerglass Festival in New York state.

Here’s a statement from Marshall Pynkoski about the upcoming co-production.

Pynkoski explains why it should be better this time.

Below I repost my November 2005 review of the production in its first Toronto incarnation.  At that time while it wasn’t perfect, we were treated to a wonderful theatrical adventure.  Knowing Pynkoski and Opera Atelier, I believe it will be even better this time.

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“Opera Atelier’s Armide”
November 14, 2005

Armide (2006)

Photo: Bruce Zinger (2006) / James Leja, Stephanie Novacek and Curtis Sullivan

Opera Atelier are currently in the middle of the Canadian premiere production of Lully’s Armide, an ambitious yet problematic affair that probably will be much better next time. In a couple of years they will revive it, ironing out inconsistencies and removing weaknesses. Such has been the remarkable pattern for the scholarly talents of Opera Atelier, who always improve upon the operas they bring back.

There are several great things one can say about aspects of the production, even though the end result still has not quite gelled. Or is the problem mine, in not knowing how to listen and watch? All the hallmarks of Opera Atelier—now a recognizable brand-name—are present in this their latest adventure.

We are again presented with the most excellent musical performance one could find. I wonder whether people recognize how good Tafelmusik is, re-inventing for us the forgotten sounds of Louis XIV’s court? One needs to forget what one knows about opera coming to Lully’s masterworks. Voices do not strive for the kind of virtuosity we encounter in Italian operas, not showing off their prowess in florid singing. There are no cadenzas, no high notes, at least, in the usual sense, but instead there is a seamless relationship between the music and the drama, voices releasing the passions of the story. Phrases are exquisitely contoured to express nuances of pain and pleasure, love, fear and anger, in the most economic manner.

We are again presented with a stage picture comprised of attractive bodies, historically informed costumes and elements of baroque movement vocabularies, re-framed within a modern rationale for the staging. The amount of dance Opera Atelier usually offers may already be jarring for anyone believing opera is an artform of stationary bodies interrupted by divertissements, a form primarily for singers, employing dancers as an afterthought. But Lully has always seemed like the promised land for Opera Atelier, a dance-master whose operas were filled with lithe bodies in motion. The productions that seemed to best suit Opera Atelier personnel and style have been French works such as Charpentier’s Medée and Actéon, or Lully’s Persée.

Let’s be fair. Nobody has ever staged Armide in North America before now. When it was new – in the 17th century(!)—its plot contained elements normal for its time. The prologue (cut for this production) paid the standard compliments to the King by foregrounding his virtues. The story that followed illustrated the conflict between Glory and Wisdom. A virginal Christian knight is tempted by a virginal warrior maiden against the backdrop of the Crusades in the Holy Land. While the maiden is from the other side –and therefore implicitly a follower of Mohammet—her language and that of her magician father invokes not the name of her God but demons and devils as her inspiration.

Whereas this tale was exotic in its time, it carries a curious resonance with current events. As a result, Marshall Pynkoski, the Co-Artistic Director of Opera Atelier and the director of Armide felt the need to deliver a lecture on opening night, asserting that Lully (composer) and Quinault (librettist) did not favour the Christians over the Muslims in their adaptation of an episode in Tasso’s renaissance epic Jerusalem Delivered (a work spawning many operas). He says this, even though throughout the surtitles one reads Armide’s invocations to demons and devils, as indeed, she is inspired not by her God Mohammet but by Satan (Canto IV of Tasso). In fact Pynkoski’s interpretive decisions–portraying Armide’s passions as a mirror to those of Renaud, her Christian adversary—elevate and dignify the action, emphasizing the psychology of passion. It’s too bad that his speech does not properly acknowledge the courage and creativity of his interpretation, but was likely intended as a nod in the direction of political correctness. I believe the truth is that Pynkoski has preserved the essence of the tale, making it relevant to a modern audience without modernizing it unduly.

There are so many glorious and beautiful moments, that it is with regret that I report the curious buzz in the audience who seemed genuinely perplexed to discover that the opera was over on an anticlimax. Whereas the earthly delights of the temptation scenes are compelling, the conclusion seems inadequate, as though there are loose ends that need to be tied up. The character of Armide is in some respects another Medea: angry, rejected, and a sorceress whose destructive powers are conflated with her erotic appeal. But whereas Stephanie Novacek’s Medée was suitably angry (in what is virtually a two-dimensional character), and made a glorious flying exit in that opera, her Armide is far subtler, particularly at the end. Perhaps what we need at the end of the opera is something simple and unequivocal, a clearer statement than what we received. I don’t think it’s Novacek’s fault, particularly because the mise-en-scène fails to deliver anything as flamboyant as what we’ve seen several times throughout the opera (Renaud’s temptation or the ranting of the figure of Hate). But this can easily be remedied in the next revival.

My objections are arguably anachronistic, from someone conditioned to 21st century performances. In Lully’s time I suspect that excellent performances by the subordinate players could upstage the leads, whereas nowadays we are conditioned differently. The most memorable performances came from Monica Whicher (Phénice) and Curtis Sullivan (Hate) rather than either Novacek’s Armide or Colin Ainsworth’s Renaud. James Leja, the dancer portraying Love makes an unforgettable appearance, contrasted wonderfully by the raucous Sullivan, who is an Opera Atelier stalwart. Sullivan is particularly impressive both vocally and physically with a strong dramatic presence resembling a wrestler rather than an opera singer.

And I can’t wait to see how they end the opera when they do their next revival.

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