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The wandering tourist (who turns out to be Renaud, who I consistently want to call Renault for some reason, even though he is no way automobile-like) goes to sleep on Louis XIV’s bed. And in the next sequence, we see a sleeping person awake on a bed in a similar room, but neither the room nor the person is the same.
The room looks like the bedroom we just saw in the palace, but the color has left it. It’s silvery-gray, with pale curtains. The person asleep is the only splash of color: it is Armide (Stéphanie d’Oustrac), wearing a red slip. The color red does a lot of work in this production. Armide wears red, while all her attendants – including Wisdom and Glory, now in costumes that are tour-guide blazer on the top and 17th-century skirt on the bottom – wear silver-gray, except for the red heels on their shoes. Red is the color of power. When Armide first summons up the spirits to enchant Renaud so she can kill him, the spirits, men and women both, wear red slips like hers and cover Renaud with red roses. Later, when Renaud leaves Armide, he is the one dressed in red from top to bottom, while she is wearing white.
The lighting in this production plays well with the pattern of color-contrasts. We get that early chilly silvery-gray room, with Armide the only point of color; the lighting when Renaud is being enchanted is warmer, as is the sequence when Armide and Renaud are enjoying their brief time of mutual affection, and then it grows cold again. Transitions are effected as much by changes in color as changes in scenery. I said before that the music, which doesn’t have the sharp aria/recitative distinction that Italian baroque opera does, sounds oddly modern – the way the transitions between the scenes work in this seems of a piece with this quality of Lully’s work. One thing flows into the next very smoothly. As staging, it’s effective and interesting without being distracting.
A lot of thought has also gone into the stage direction. An opera like this could feel static. There are some parts of the longer dance sequences (e.g. when Renaud is being enchanted) where I was tempted to be a Historically Informed Audience member and allow my attention to wander for a while. But the singing sequences are uniformly well done. For example, in the scene where Armide summons Hate, there is a long section where Hate and his chorus of spirits are singing to Armide; they have her reacting to this, and moving about the stage, in a way that gives a feeling of movement and urgency to the scene, but doesn’t distract from what the soloist and chorus are doing. The “hate enchantment” bit that comes right after this is also really well done. Armide has asked Hate to take away her feelings of love. So the hate spirits (all in red slips and garish red lipstick) hold her down, and they all kiss her, one at a time, as if they’re physically sucking the love out of her. When we see her face again, she looks awful – terrified and smudged all over with lipstick that might as well be blood.
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