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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A unique memento, 16 Aug 2011
R. Burgess (London UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Gluck: Armide (Audio CD)
I am delighted that EMI Classics have made this performance available again, having enjoyed it for many years on LP. 'Armide' holds a special place in the mature operas of Gluck's final period in Paris. He appeared in the French capital, controversially, as a master of the Italian style in music, but such was the quality of the operas he presented there from 1774 onwards, the new French 'Iphigénie en Aulide' and the revised Italian operas 'Orphée' and 'Alceste' that he easily won over his audience - aided also by the patronage of the new queen, Marie Antoinette, a former pupil of his at the Austrian court. Now in 'Armide' he challenged the French tradition on its own ground, choosing to set a nearly century-old libretto written by Philippe Quinault for Lully, the father of French opera (ironically Italian by birth). In doing so he breathed new life into the moribund genre of 'tragédie lyrique' just as much as he had done for the Italian 'opera seria,' and thereby came to be acclaimed as the great saviour of French opera, causing the pro-Italian faction in Paris to bring in their own rival champion, Niccolò Piccinni, a distinguished but hardly comparable composer of the day. The contest between the two turned out to be a damp squib, Gluck easily carrying the day. In 'Armide' he produced an opera of searing dramatic force, especially in its portrayal of the eponymous heroine, the sorceress whose love for the crusader knight Renaud is cruelly betrayed. The danced episodes, including songs, so prominent in French opera, are often exceptionally beautiful, coveying a remarkable feeling of drowsy sensuality, while the cataclysmic final scene in which Armide brings down destruction on her magic palace, the scene of her amour, is most unusual in 18th century opera, where so often the drama peters out in the obligatory happy ending. It presages the startling conclusion of Cherubini's 'Medea' and even looks forward to the Immolation scene at the end of 'The Ring.' Janet Baker once recorded this scene in a performance of almost unbearable emotional intensity.

Felicity Palmer sings the whole long and demanding role with equal conviction and with her attractively distinctive tone quality. At the time of the recording she was moving from soprano roles into the mezzo repertory. It was clearly a difficult period for her, but the full-blooded commitment she brought to the role of Armide shows exactly the desire for truthfulness in dramatic expression on which Gluck's music thrives. Miss Palmer really carries the opera, but she is ably supported by fine English artists - among them the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson as a lyrical Renaud and Linda Finnie making a sterling impact in the important role of the fury Hate, whom Armide summons up, unavailingly, to exorcise her doomed love, with chorus and orchestra well directed by the lamented and much missed Richard Hickox. I would judge this performance to be superior to the only other modern version under Marc Minkowski. Unlike the latter, who cuts some dance movements, it is complete.

It also serves as a memento of a unique occasion, being a studio recording by the artists who gave four performances of the opera at the 1982 festival of Christ Church Spitalfields. The magnificent church by Nicholas Hawksmoor, one of the finest Baroque buildings in London or anywhere, was then partly derelict: its resplendent restoration was to take many years' work and research. The festival did much to make the church better known and awaken concern for its fate. Opera had figured in the previous year's programme when Janet Baker sang in a concert performance of 'Dido and Aeneas,' but in 1982 the little known 'Armide' was - most improbably - staged in the church in an enjoyable if bizarre production by Wolf-Siegfried Wagner, great-grandson of the composer. I recall Armide got up like a Palestinian freedom fighter, Hate looking like an escapee from a psychiatric ward with great white sheets billowing around and threatening to engulf her- don't ask me why - and with the knights in padded Michelin Man suits. Gluck's operas seem to attract this kind of highly "symbolic" stylisation. On disc one can simply enjoy the music, but those who were there in 1982 will be reminded by this new release of the various factors that combined to make a most memorable operatic experience.

The accompanying booklet gives only a synopsis, but the set includes a CD-Rom of the libretto in French (no translation). No doubt this recording will not be around for long, so if you are at all interested do snap it up at once.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Look to Hickox for the drama that Minkowski misses, 16 Dec 2011
Ralph Moore "Ralph operaphile" (Bishop's Stortford, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Gluck: Armide (Audio CD)
The 1996 Minkowski recording of this, Gluck's fourth opera for Paris, has languished on my shelves for years without my feeling much impulse to revisit it. The reappearance of Richard Hickox' 1982 version gave me good cause to find out why; straight away I discovered what was missing from Minkowski's account: a sense of urgency, tension, a proper acknowledgement of the searing passions seething in Armide's breast and the underlying "edginess" that must lurk beneath the declamatory grandeur of Gluck's stately music.

Gluck's desire was to escape Baroque formalism and deliver a more direct, unadorned emotionalism. Minkowski seems to me to be stuck in a more sedate past in his handling of the score. His default position is the cliché adopted by all conductors bereft of ideas: take the slow passages VERY SLOOOW then go hell for leather in the fast sections. His direction is otherwise rhythmically inert as we veer between stasis and scramble. Urgency is not conveyed by being frenetic. It perhaps doesn't help that the Baroque pitch of A=403 is used; being two thirds of a tone down on standard modern concert pitch definitely takes the edge off things. You have only to compare some of the more dramatic moments with Hickox' taut, flexible direction to hear the difference; one such is the final scene, which brings me to the deficiencies in Minkowski's singers as compared with Hickox' stellar cast - stellar, with one notable exception, that is.

The lack of excitement in his conducting is compounded by Minkowski's voices: Mireille Delunsch has a light, flickering, attractive mezzo but her relatively small and unvaried tone is as nothing compared with Felicity Palmer's big, handsome voice. Yes, she has her squally moments - she was in the process of making the transition from the soprano to the mezzo tessitura and is at times awkward, but the sheer intensity and scale of her assumption of the role at times are reminiscent of Callas, as is her ability to shade dynamics and colour her tone. Comparison of that last scene provides a conclusive illustration of the difference between them; Palmer's conflict and despair are gripping, Delunsch sounds mildly inconvenienced. Minkowski generally has lighter, less characterful voices at his disposal with the notable exception of the great Ewa Podles' "La haine" - not that Hickox' Linda Finnie is in any sense inadequate in that role but Podles engineers a typical tour de force compared with Finnie's more conventional singing. Tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson clearly has a major voice compared with Charles Workman and does a reasonable facsimile of a French haut-contre tenor; generally the smaller parts are much better filled for Hickox, including lovely contributions by Keith Lewis, Sally Burgess and Marie Slorach in the two successive trios in Act 4. Minkowski's singers are nowhere near so beautiful. The big exception is Hickox' Hidraot, which lies too high for Raimund Herincx at this stage of his career and his contribution is, I'm afraid, at times comically strained and wobbly. Fortunately, it's a small part; Minkowski's Laurent Naouri is much smoother of voice but also typically bland compared with Herincx' game blustering.

EMI provide a synopsis and one of those annoying libretti on a fourth CD ROM; Archiv includes a conventional booklet with a libretto but Minkowski's edition permits cuts in the dance music. I know which one I shall be keeping and listening to when I want to enter Gluck's strange fantasy world of magic spectacle and psychological verisimilitude.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prachtige muziek., 23 Aug 2013
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This review is from: Gluck: Armide (Audio CD)
Schitterende opname. Vooral Felicity Palmer maakt het beluisteren van deze opera tot een groot feest. Libretto is meegeleverd op CD-rom.
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Gluck: Armide by Richard Hickox (Audio CD - 2010)
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