It is almost exactly ten years since Philippe Herreweghe recorded his earlier version of Lully's Armide (Erato, 11/83—nla). That version had some strong features among which Rachel Yakar's singing of the title-role should be mentioned. But the set was seriously flawed by the entire omission of the Fourth Act of the opera. From a purely action viewpoint it is weak and the plot loses nothing by its exclusion; indeed, there were critics in Lully's own time who felt the act to be superfluous. But dramatically it does have a purpose in relieving the tension of the previous act and there is certainly no case to be argued for leaving it out. In this new recording Herreweghe gives us the work complete, adding some 44 minutes to the performing time of the older issue.
Armide was the last of the tragedies en musique in which Lully and his trusty Quinault collaborated—Gluck was to use the same livret some 90 years later. But somewhat to Lully's dismay, since the king had chosen the subject, the first performance in 1686, took place not before the court at Versailles but before a Parisian public audience at the Palais-Royal. The story comes from Tasso's great epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (''Jerusalem Delivered''). Armide, a sorceress and a warrior, has won a victory over the Crusaders; but one of the Christian knights, Renaud (Rinaldo)—the bravest of them all—though held captive, remains unconquered in spirit and impervious to her charms. This angers Armide who has been unable to stop herself falling in love with him. She therefore casts a spell over Renaud, attempts unsuccessfully to overcome her love for him and then in desperation invokes Hate to tear love from her breast. At last two knights rescue Renaud by breaking Armide's spell with a magic shield. Her palace collapses and she flies away in a winged chariot. All this is prefaced in Lully's opera by a prologue consisting of a conversational encomium to Louis XIV delivered by two allegorical figures, Glory and Wisdom.
Herreweghe and his expert groups of singers and players give a pleasingly rounded account of Lully's accomplished and often strikingly beautiful score. The casting of Guillemette Laurens in the title-role was an inspired choice. She is notably skilful in the art of declamation, is gifted with a sharp ear for detail and has a lively feeling for musical gesture. Her initial Act 1 entry is, perhaps, a shade insecure but that passes almost at once and from there onwards her performance grows in stature. An early indication of her colourful interpretation of Armide's role occurs in her Act 1 exchanges with her father, the sorcerer Hidraot: ''Contre mes ennemis, a mon gre je dechaine le noir empire des Enfers'' (''Against my enemies, at a whim I unleash the black Empire of Hell....''). But Laurens's skill in declamation is best observed in the great extended recitative, ''Enfin, il est en ma puissance'' (''At last he is in my power''), which concludes the Second Act. This is one of Lully's great monologues where text and music complement one another in a way that was much admired by the composer's contemporaries.
Howard Crook's Renaud is lightly articulated and, in all but one or two instances, tonally well-focused. Like Laurens, he quickly settles into the role, giving an affecting performance of the beautiful Act 2 monologue ''Plus j'observe ces lieux''. This is a magical scene in every sense which, together with the superbly constructed Fifth and final Act, makes it easier for us nowadays to understand the potency of the disputes between the supporters of Lully and the supporters of Rameau which arose half a century later. Crook is on top form in this concluding act, injecting a heightened passion to his exchanges with Armide while under her spell.
The remaining soloists make a very impressive showing, too, with Bernard Deletre as a menacing Hidraot, John Hancock as a spiteful La Haine (Hate)—his Act 3 scene 4 comes off particularly well—and Gilles Ragon as the Chevalier Danois, whose search for Renaud in the company of Ubalde (Bernard Deletre) leads to a variety of strange encounters. And last but by no means least there is the happy partnership of the sopranos Veronique Gens and Noemi Rime. I have recently noted the rapport between these singers in a recital of Charpentier Lecons de Tenebres (Opus 111, 9/92). In Armide they sing La Gloire and La Sagesse (Prologue) respectively, and later in the opera, the two confidantes of Armide, the two ''dames des pensees'' of the Chevalier Danois and his companion in arms Ubalde, and a shepherdess and naiad.
In summary, this is a stylish and sympathetic performance of one of Lully's greatest achievements. The singers are mostly well supported by assured instrumental playing and such weak passages as there are—there is an unsettled moment, for example, in the Sarabande of the third scene in Act 3—are few and far between. Perhaps I felt from time to time that Herreweghe was inclined to under-dramatize the music. The Fifth Act Passacaille seemed to me to be lacking in vitality and, since its music and position have an important bearing on the remainder of the scene, this was something of a disappointment. But other dances, such as the captivating Gavotte from Act 4 scene 2 come off well, though the omission of some repeats is regrettable. A stylish realization of a beautiful score makes this a must for opera-lovers and Francophiles.'