French baroque opera! Where we retain the length and the literary/historical/mythological subject matter of the Italian style, but are not boxed into a succesion of da capo arias, and the distinction between aria and recitative is abandoned with a shrug. It actually feels surprisingly modern.
Lully’s Armide is the story of Armide, a sorceress who rules her kingdom (it’s probably an island of some kind) by the power of her magic, which is closely tied to the power of her beauty. Armide rejects love for freedom and power, so I guess we can all figure out what is going to happen to her. Armide’s chief enemy, Renaud, frees some captives that Armide’s forces had taken, and she decides to enchant him and then kill him. So, she enchants him, but can’t find it in herself to kill him, because he’s so beautiful and valorous. She falls in love, but against her will. And so she summons the forces of hate to attempt to break love’s power over her. It doesn’t work. Despite loving her in return, Renaud leaves in search of glory and Armide kills herself in despair.
Lully composed most of his music for Louis XIV, and this production has a certain amount of fun with this concept. During the overture (the first thing you hear is drums and tamborines – it’s one of those openings where if you didn’t know already, it would be pretty clear that this is a French baroque opera. They have a fairly distinctive sort of sound) there is nothing on stage but a velvet rope barrier and a large screen on which is projected a painting of a palace and the words “next visit 19.30.” The chorus filter into the audience wearing shorts and polos and summer dresses. Some have audio guides on lanyards around their necks, and others are carrying books about Louis XIV. They’re tourists, and they’re about to take a tour of Versailles, conducted by Wisdom and Glory, who are in this instance dressed as tour guides. (They have name tags, which I think say “Mlle La Gloire” or “Mme La Sagesse” or something along those lines but I couldn’t really see: I guess this is a case for Blu-ray?).
Wisdom and Glory sing some fairly fulsome praise of Louis XIV, accompanied by pictures of his portraits and busts and statues, and also pictures of Versailles. This is very pretty music – the two solosts (Claire Debono and Isabelle Druet) nail both the musical style and the gentle humor of the sequence, and the chorus was very enjoyable too – it comes off as elegant and well-executed and pretty and not too serious. Then the screen switches to a sequence filmed at Versailles itself (I wondered what the theater audience saw – maybe the same film projected on the screen?) in which after being led by Wisdom and Glory through a few rooms, a handful of tourists suddenly breaks into a run into the Hall of Mirrors and begins to dance. What we are hearing at this point is dance music, with some nice lute-playing and recorders, so it isn’t as startling as you might think. We see them dancing in the Hall of Mirrors, and in various parts of the garden before returning to the interior of the palace, where the group then moves into Louis’s bedroom. One man in particular is struck by the room, and goes around touching the hangings and gazing up at the paintings before finally sneaking past the barrier when the rest of the group is gone to curl up on Louis’s bed and fall asleep.
(Next section here.)