Gluck Armide

Author: 
Stanley Sadie

Gluck Armide

  • Armide

‘Perhaps the best of all my works’, said Gluck of his Armide. But this, the fifth of his seven ‘reform operas’, has never quite captured the public interest as have Orfeo, Alceste, the two Iphigenies and even Paride ed Elena. Unlike those works it is based not on classical mythology but on Tasso’s crusade epic, Gerusalemme liberata. No doubt Gluck turned to this libretto, originally written by Quinault, to challenge Parisian taste by inviting comparison with the much-loved Lully setting. Its plot is thinnish, concerned only with the love of the pagan sorceress Armide, princess of Damascus, for the Christian knight and hero Renaud, and his enchantment and finally his disenchantment and his abandonment of her; the secondary characters have no real life. Its style, largely determined by the structure of the libretto, is closer to the French tragedie-lyrique traditions than are Gluck’s more familiar operas, with its short airs gliding into arioso and recitative. There are relics, too, of the traditional French divertissement, a scene usually of only marginal relevance to the plot which is worked in to provide opportunity for choruses and dance (with nymphs and shepherds in Act 2, for example, demons in Act 3, Pleasures in Act 5). But Armide has two features that set it apart. One is the extraordinary soft, sensuous tone of the music; Gluck said that it was meant ‘to produce a voluptuous sensation’, and that if he were to suffer damnation it would be for the passionate love duet in Act 5. And certainly his orchestral writing here has a warmth, a colour and a richness going far beyond anything in his other reform operas (apart from parts of Paride ed Elena). Secondly, there are several great solo dramatic scenes, two of them for Armide herself: the opera’s closing scene, in which she rails furiously at Renaud’s treachery, and one at the end of Act 2, where, discovering him asleep and torn between love and hatred of her enemy, she cannot bring herself to kill him.
The success of Armide, then, depends critically on the Armide herself. In the only other reasonably recent recording (HMV, 7/83 – nla), Felicity Palmer sang the role with immense passion. Here it goes to Mireille Delunsch, who brings to it a good deal of intensity where it is needed but does not have command of a wide range of tone, and does not seem to make much use of her words. Her voice is perhaps a high mezzo rather than a true soprano, which is by no means inappropriate (imagine what Dame Janet Baker might have done with this role!). There is some graceful singing in the softer music, such as ‘La chaine de l’Hymen’ in Act 1, the well-known pathetic air ‘Ah! si la liberte’ (very touchingly done) at the opening of Act 3 or at the moving conclusion of that act (markedly reminiscent of Iphigenie en Tauride). The scene where she cannot bring herself to kill Renaud is finely done, with a firm line, clear detail and a degree of passion, but neither here nor in the invocation of Hate is there a great deal of agitation or emotional tension. The closing scene is of course powerfully done, and is also conducted with plenty of fire. This is a very adequate performance by Delunsch though a little short of a thrilling one. Renaud is sung by Charles Workman, in a strong tenor, sounding almost baritonal in his opening scene with Artemidore but then singing the sleep song, ‘Plus j’observe ces lieux’, with soft, sweet tone and much delicacy. The lovers’ duet in Act 5 is sung gently and with much charm.
Among the other singers, Ewa Podles of course makes a strong impression as La Haine (Hate) with her large and steady voice – and some remarkable music to sing. Francoise Masset and Nicole Heaston sing Armide’s confidantes and various smaller roles; Heaston in particular sings with delicacy and allure. Laurent Naouri shows a pleasant, firm baritone as Hidraot, and Yann Beuron (whose lyrical high tenor and clarity of diction give especial pleasure) and Brett Polegato sing the two lesser male roles.
Marc Minkowski makes much of the score’s colour and flow. He uses a substantial orchestra (the strings are 10.7.4.5.4) which, however, plays lightly and flexibly and with rhythmic spring, and there is some excellent solo woodwind playing (notably the flute solos, from Kate Clark). He tends, as usual, towards quickish tempos: here and there, and especially in some of the dances (of which a few are omitted), I wished he would give the music a little more space. But he certainly keeps the score moving along well, is attentive to the accompanying figures and to the characterization of individual numbers – there are jolly and lively pieces here as well as impassioned ones – and he draws alert, spirited singing from the chorus.'

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