Sharps & Flats

Gluck gave Armide a new life to save opera in the 18th century. The grand sorceress still bewitches.


Patrick Giles
January 5, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

"I shall die if you leave, that you cannot doubt/[My spirit] will equal,
if that is possible/The love for you that has consumed me"

This is not a poem by Sharon Olds nor a quote from some daytime talk
show. It's the finale of "Armide," an opera composed in 1777 by
Christoph Willibald Gluck. The most frequent complaint heard from people
with little or no taste for opera (aside from "loud," "long" and "not
in English") is that the plots and characters are old-fashioned and
impossible to relate to. But a work like "Armide," which dramatizes the
magical and dangerous properties of love and desire, defies all these
objections. With an inspired performance it can sound with awesome
power, as emotionally wise and musically beautiful as any contemporary
song or opera.

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The pagan sorceress Armida (the original Italian spelling) was as
famous a character in the 16th through 19th centuries as Scarlett O'Hara
was in the 20th. She first appears in Tasso's fictional epic poem
"Gerusalemme Liberata" ("The Liberation of Jerusalem"), and quickly
became a popular character in operas (Handel's "Rinaldo"), cantatas
(Haydn's "Armida Abbandonata") and countless poems, fantasias and visual
works. Gluck's opera is set in Damascus, during the Crusades, and it
opens with Armide's attendants celebrating her successful bewitching and
imprisoning of an entire Christian army. The mood changes to one of
worry when Armide is informed that one knight, Renaud, has resisted her
spells and freed several comrades. Armide uses her powers to lure and
beguile Renaud, but upon raising her dagger, she realizes she has fallen
in love and cannot kill him.

Furiously, Armide summons La Haine (Hate) from Hell to recharge her
murderous powers. But Hate realizes Armide cannot relinquish love. (The
sneering exit of Hate and her demons followed by Armide's curtain-fall
prayer for Love's rescue is one of opera's perfect moments.) Armide uses
all her powers to make Renaud love her in return. But she knows his
affections are "a hollow triumph, a spurious happiness" that can't last.
When Renaud leaves her side to return to the Crusades, Armide's raging
despair wipes out her entire world.

Gluck (1714-87) tried to make opera more accessible and believable.
(Even then opera's audiences and performers worried that their art form
was old-fashioned.) "Armide" was a gamble: Gluck composed, almost
word-for-word, the libretto for another "Armide" opera, one
written in 1686 by Philippe Quinault for French opera's godfather,
Jean-Baptiste Lully. (Imagine Puff Daddy rescoring "Siegfried" to
understand how shocking French music lovers must have found Gluck's
ambition.) But Gluck won: To the formal oaths and tableaux of another
century, he conjured some of his finest sounds. Gluck's triumph affirms
that it's not the age of music that counts most, but its mastery and
truthfulness.

Operas written much later, with more contemporary sounds and words, can
seem antique after the charged deftness of "Armide." It's also propelled by
ravishingly beautiful music. The flow from one musical theme to another,
the rich mixing of instrumental colors suddenly followed by a solo voice
soaring in exquisite harmony, are cunningly plotted. The magnificent
"Hate" episode bears no conventional, portentous chords of evil, but a
raucous opening that sounds a beat away from racing out of control. This
scene contains the new Archiv recording's best singing: The Polish
contralto Eva Podles (who herself might have made a magnificent Armide)
is chilling as Hate, sounding deep notes of evil and malice.

If the rest of the cast (and its conductor) had matched her, this
"Armide" recording would be one for the ages. It's an admittedly
difficult work to bring off. The Metropolitan Opera premiered it in
1917, and despite an amazing cast (the Wagner soprano Olive Fremstad as
Armide, Enrico Caruso as Renaud) and Arturo Toscanini's conducting,
"Armide" never assumed a regular place on Met schedules.

The Archiv recording only approaches the potential of the material. (It
comes from recent live performances given in the Grand Salle de la Citi
de la Musique in Paris.) Again and again, despite consistently stylish
and sometimes exquisite playing, Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du
Louvre indicate the musical temper rather than convincingly expressing
it. While the more lyrical "fantasy" scenes are lovely, the bigger,
confrontational moments -- Armide preparing to kill Renaud, or so wild
with abandonment she destroys her castle -- sound less convincing.

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There is some good singing on the album (Charles Workman and Laurent
Naouri especially) but unlike Podles they don't revel in the score. And
it's only through completely understanding an opera and communicating
its message fearlessly that a performance can be truly worthy of what
its composer felt when he created it.

The title role is one of the most challenging in opera, the soprano's
equivalent of Hamlet. Armide sings arias and declamations so formidable that
singers, critics and audiences of Gluck's time admired and argued over
them incessantly. The artist must have a powerful, flexible voice and
absolute command of the drama. On the Archiv recording, Mireille
Delunsch's portrayal is frequently touching, but she doesn't scare,
surprise or move the listener on the deepest levels. This role demands a
sensitive singer, capable of heroic sound and passion. Unfortunately,
other recent sopranos perfect for the role (such as Leontyne Price,
Regine Crespin, Eileen Farrell or Carol Vaness) failed to take on its
challenge. Delunsch's handsome soprano is simply not strong enough to
realize Armide's ambition, rapture and abandonment.

It's frustrating to finally hear "Armide" performed by musicians capable
of conjuring its full powers and yet listen to them miss catching the
spell. The opera has a lot more emotional wallop than this new recording
draws out of it. Still, "Armide" is too special a work to be avoided,
even when not performed at white heat. For three generations, recordings
of rarely heard operas have inspired attempts to revive them. Listening
to "Armide," it's hard not to imagine the grand sorceress stalking our
opera houses, itching for the moment to take the stage with Gluck's
music and bewitch a new generation.


Patrick Giles

Patrick Giles writes about music, literature, politics and baseball, and is the author of "Derek Jeter: Pride of the Yankees." He lives in New York.

MORE FROM Patrick Giles

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