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A unique memento,
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.