Six years and more ago I sent in a review of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas as one of my first reviews on this site. At the time I warned any readers that the 17th century was an all but total blank in my knowledge of music. Asking myself what I have done about that since, I find that I have acquired quite a good knowledge of Purcell but remain as ignorant as ever about the rest. In particular, until now the rest of the music of France between the Troubadours and Couperin has been silence to me. Anything I have to say about a performance of Lully's Armide is therefore likely to be significant, if to anyone, only to others in a similar position of trying to improve their knowledge and understanding of this school of music.
This is a scholarly performance, which is not to say a pedantic one. The performing edition, together with an introductory essay, is based on the work of the eminent expert Lois Rosow, although the director himself takes responsibility for editorial cuts, which he lists in detail. I have no difficulty with this in principle, and whatever I may be missing by way of more music, Ryan Brown's reasons seem to me sensible. In particular I cannot see that all these centuries later we should feel any obligation to include in a tragedy of Armide a Prologue extolling the reign of Louis XIV and denouncing Protestantism. I am however intrigued by Lois Rosow's concluding statement that `editorial percussion has been added.' Does this mean all the percussion, or only extra percussion? There is some very effective timpani work at appropriate points, plus some sort of tambourine or the like here and there.
Cuts or no cuts, Lully's Armide is no miniature work. It lasts over 2 hours here, which makes it longer than not just Dido and Aeneas but even than La Boheme. Except for the change of disc the work is performed with seamless continuity along its five acts, which is more than one could do with Otello. I suppose the main credit should go to the composer for the sense that this is a mature and developed operatic style, but I give Brown and Rosow some points as well for getting the work into coherent shape. I have seen the plot criticised, but in my own opinion this is a far more coherent and convincing libretto than that of Gluck's later Armide, based on the same basic book by Quinault. My initial reaction was that Lully seems rather pallid compared with Purcell, but repeated hearing has modified this first impression. I will say candidly that I still don't think Lully as powerful a genius as Purcell if this is anything to go by, but Lully is working in the French tragic tradition, the tradition of Corneille and Racine, and not the Shakespearean one. The characters are to some extent stylised `types', whereas with Purcell we are already sensing a different sort of characterisation, well on the way to the full individuality that we associate with Handel and Mozart. Gluck could portray individuality as well as either, but he slipped in and out of the French way of doing things too, even to the extent of combining his two modes slightly uncomfortably in his own Armide.
The other thing that changed my opinion was the actual singing. At first my main impression was of characters who were bien eleves and restrained, but again repeated listening made me aware of the real passion in the vocal expression, all within stylistic limits be it understood. The demons and the personified Hatred are rather orderly, but that is the French convention, and Gluck sticks with this way of treating them. All the singers without exception strike me as excellent, and I welcome the short resumes provided in the liner. Resumes of all but one that is - oh dear, Mr Darren Perry, quel erreur, quelle folie. One thing that put me at my ease right from the outset was that there are no altos, and in particular no male altos, among the large cast of soloists. Indeed, of the four choral altos three are female. A full list of performers is provided, and I found the instrumental list particularly interesting. Yet another eminent group of Early Music specialists, and still they come.
And back I come with a refrain of my own. All my thanks and appreciation to Naxos the irreplaceable.