Opera Atelier mounted the North American premiere of Armide (1686) by Jean-Baptiste Lully in 2005 to celebrate its 20th season.  Now OA has revived the production of this work, often considered the pinnacle of 17th-century French opera, in an enhanced version even more opulent than it was before.  It is a visual and musical feast that OA has been asked to take to the Opéra Royal de Versailles May 11-13, 2012 and to Glimmerglass Opera July 21-August 23, 2012.

The story, based on an episode of Torquato Tasso epic Gerusalemme liberata (1581), is set during the First Crusade and, as one might expect, depicts the Crusades as a battle between Good as embodied by the Christian knights and Evil as embodied by the Muslims.  What is quite surprising is that Lully’s librettist Philippe Quinault takes a more complex view of his characters than is present in his source.

As the opera opens, the Muslim sorceress Armide (Peggy Kriha Dye) and her uncle Hidraot (João Fernandes), are celebrating Armide’s victory over the Christians.  Soon, however, they are dismayed that a single Christian knight, Renaud (Colin Ainsworth), has rescued all the men Armide had captured.  She vows to wreak revenge upon him by luring him to the enchanted garden of her castle where he will forget all sense of duty and glory.  Renaud is drawn into her trap but at the crucial moment when she means to kill him, Armide finds to her dismay that she cannot.  Indeed, she has fallen in love with her enemy.  Besides this, Renaud falls deeply in love with Armide but, as Quinault makes clear, not because of her spells to which he is impervious.

Thus, remarkable for the period, Quinault, unlike Tasso, emphasizes that Renaud’s love for Armide is real, and, again unlike Tasso, he excludes any hint of Armide’s later conversion to Christianity.  The opera concludes instead with her despair at Renaud’s departure and the destruction of her castle of pleasure, the outward symbol of her happiness.  Quinault thus raises Armide and Renaud to the level of doomed lovers of classical literature like Dido and Aeneas and his keen exploration of the internal turmoil caused by love should remind us that Quinault (1635-88) was a contemporary of Jean Racine (1639-99).

All the singers have fully mastered the declamatory style that dominates the work.  Both principals, mezzo soprano Peggy Kriha Dye and tenor Colin Ainsworth give outstanding performances.  Dye last appeared with OA inIphigénie en Tauride in 2009 and Ainsworth last in Orphée et Eurydice in 2007, also opposite Dye.  The voices of both have noticeably matured.  Ainsworth has always been blessed with an unusually high, pure tenor.  Now it thrills with remarkable power and expressivity.  Dye’s voice has always struck me like a diamond glittering against a dark velvet.  Now it, too, has gained in strength.  With Ainsworth and Dye, the scenes between Renaud and Armide are not only musically exquisite but as emotionally powerful an any in all opera.

In the supporting cast bright-voiced sopranos Carla Huhtanen and Meghan Lindsay are charming as Armide’s two confidantes and later as magic spirits.  Bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre is well-paired with tenor Aaron Ferguson as comic Crusaders searching for Renaud.  João Fernandes displayed his unusually dark bass to fine effect as Hidraot.  Bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan, in a chest-baring, skin-tight, flame-emblazoned unitard impressed both vocally and visually as La Haine and made a seemingly unconquerable counterpart to the beautifully sensitive, winged L’Amour of dancer Jack Rennie.

Director Marshall Pynkoski has softened the former rigidity of the stylized gestural language of the period to allow for a greater sense of emotional impulse.  His management of the battle between L’Amour and La Haine for the soul of Armide was a perfect example of how an allegorical representation of an internal struggle can be absolutely rivetting.  His decision to omit any depiction of the collapse of Armide’s castle of pleasure is a brilliant insight.  To depict her alone and in distress enfolded in the arms of L’Amour tells us beautifully and simply all we needed to know and to more devastating effect.

Armide is a perfect vehicle for OA since it tells its story as much through dance as through song.  Music frequently passes back and forth between the singers and the dancers who often share the stage in beautifully integrated passages choreographed for the full corps of sixteen by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg.  Set designer Gerard Gauci and costume designer Dora Rust-D’Eye have turned for inspiration from period European sources to the jewel-like colours and precise lines of Persian miniatures of the 16th century.  The front scrim even features a massive tughra of the opera’s title transcribed into Persian and Persian calligraphy decorates numerous flown panels making them look like pages from illuminated manuscripts.  Conductor David Fallis drew playing of breath-taking beauty and lushness the 30-member Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, which included two harpsichords, two lute and percussion.

Opera Atelier continues to go from strength to strength.  Torontonians, and indeed all Canadians, should be proud that this local company, which has grown through selfless dedication to a vision from its humble beginnings in 1985 to international stature, should yet again represent Canada on the world stage.

Armide runs at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, April 14-21.  For tickets or more information visit www.operaatelier.com.

©Christopher Hoile

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