Gluck – Armide
Armide – Véronique Gens
Hidraot – Edwin Crossley-Mercer
Renaud – Ian Bostridge
Le Chevalier danois – Enguerrand de Hys
Ubalde – Philippe Estèphe
Phénice / Lucinde / Plaisir / Naïade – Apolline Rai-Westphal
Sidonie / Mélisse / Bergère – Florie Valiquette
La Haine – Anaïk Morel
Artémidore – Enguerrand de Hys
Aronte – Philippe Estèphe
Les éléments, Les Talens Lyriques / Christophe Rousset.
Stage director – Lilo Baur.
Théâtre national de l’Opéra-Comique, Paris, France. Friday, November 11th, 2022.
This new production of Armide at the beautiful Théâtre national de l’Opéra-Comique is notable for two significant debuts – that of celebrated Gluckian Véronique Gens in the title role, as well as noted actor and stage director Lilo Baur’s first time directing for the lyric stage. Given Gens’ status as one of the leading singers of this repertoire active today, and the fact that she has performed excerpts of this role on record and in concert, it’s hard to believe that this was her first time essaying the role complete. For that reason, expectations this evening were stratospheric.
Baur’s staging is utilitarian enough. She sets the action in a fantasy world – costumes (Alain Blanchot) are redolent of Game of Thrones, seemingly influenced by the aesthetic of that television series. The evening opens with the set adorned with a metal structure, that looks like the exterior of the MuCEM in Marseille. As the evening develops, these disappear into the flies, to highlight a tree taking a central place in the set, upon which characters occasionally alight to sing from, or sit on the floor to relax against. As the evening develops, we see verdant leaves descend from the flies to hover over the stage, providing visual interest, while the background of the stage consists of an image of dark clouds on the horizon. In Acts 4 and 5, following the intermission, a circle of light appears at the back of the stage.
It seems that the circle is quite important symbolism for Baur. Her direction of the chorus involves them walking around the stage in a circle around the tree. In Act 2, a male danseur wearing a dress, dances circles around the stage – the flying skirt making us wonder if he’s a true Scotsman. I found Baur’s personenregie to consist of a significant amount of standing and delivering. While it’s true, the costumes were impressive, and there was a clear delineation between the various multiple characters for the chorus and supporting cast, far too often characters barely looked at each other, preferring to declaim their contributions to the front. That said, this was a performance that transcended the relatively static direction thanks to the superb clarity of diction throughout the cast.
Indeed, tonight Gens gave us a masterclass in how to perform this repertoire. Her soprano is one of the loveliest around, an instrument of great pulchritude, instantly recognizable. And yet, I have to admit that at the start of the evening, the passage of time was apparent with tone that was somewhat dry. Consequently, it seemed that Gens made even more of an effort to fill the text with meaning, to command the stage. As the evening developed, that glorious beauty of yore re-entered the tone, founded on an impeccable legato, clarity of diction, and stylistic awareness. More than this, she completely incarnated her character, giving us an insight into Armide’s journey from strength, to love, to surrender. Sometimes, it was almost imperceptible – her big scene starting with ‘enfin il est en ma puissance’ saw the recitative start with defiance, yet as she moved into the aria, one got an immediate sense of how Armide was transforming as a person, achieved through that legato, beauty of tone, and intelligent pointing of the words. Gens’ ‘Ah! Si la liberté’ was a highlight of the evening, exemplifying those aforementioned qualities that make her singing so satisfying, while she rose to a final scene of captivating power. This was the work of a truly great artist.
As Renaud, Ian Bostridge’s tenor is certainly an acquired taste. His vocal production is curious – rather than standing tall, with the support lined up, it seems that the resonance of the voice is produced completely in the head, by needing to constantly lean forward, which makes it sound rather artificial and disconnected. He sang his opening scene as if it were Britten, with blanched tone and long vibrato-less lines. There was admittedly some admirable mellifluousness to his singing and his French was decent, other than a tendency to sing ‘arrêtez’ as ‘arrêti’. Edwin Crossley-Mercer sang his music confidently in a brawny baritone, the text always clear. Anaïk Morel raged enthusiastically as La Haine, spitting out the words in a liquid mezzo and making much of her scene.
In the supporting cast, we were treated to some enchanting young voices, some of whom might well graduate to the bigger roles in due course. Enguerrand de Hys sang his music in a well-placed, focused tenor. Indeed, it felt that he might have been more optimal casting for Renaud. Philippe Estèphe sang his music in a handsome, focused and chestnut-toned baritone, while Apolline Rai-Westphal blended agreeably with her castmates in the ensembles. Granby, Quebec, soprano Florie Valiquette brought her delectably bright and sweet instrument to her music, soaring agreeably over the textures. The chorus, provided by Les éléments, sang with superb discipline and unanimity of tone. Blend was impeccable, allowing us to hear Gluck’s harmonies dispatched with staggering precision.
Christophe Rousset led Les Talens lyriques in a vigorous reading from the pit. There was a physical energy to his reading that I found irresistible. His tempi were sensible, attack was immaculate, and the clarity of articulation he elicited from the band meant that the evening sped by. The acoustic of the Salle Favart is rather on the dry side, which meant that the strings initially sounded a bit scratchy, but the ear soon acclimatized, and I was particularly taken by the plangent oboe playing and the nutty clarinets. The horns had a very small number of accidents as we progressed through the evening, but string intonation was absolutely spot on all night.
This was a very special evening. A performance of this wonderful piece that lived such clarity of diction that rendered the surtitles superfluous. It was extremely well cast across the board, other for one major reservation. Conducted with physically embracing energy, it was anchored by a compelling account of the title role from a singer who displayed a total mastery of her art. The staging was prosaic enough and did the job. The evening was received with an extremely generous ovation for the entire cast from the Opéra Comique audience.