(Previous section here.)
The opera ends with Armide on the bed in her white slip, holding up a dagger and swearing vengeance against Renaud – but the person she stabs is herself. She collapses, and we are back to the ‘real’ Versailles, where the tourist who fell asleep earlier (Renaud) is just waking up from his nap on Louis’s bed. He is surprised by the tour group and the guides, who chase him out.
It makes sense that this opera is staged as a dream, I guess. For one thing, this is a story about Armide and her feelings. Renaud doesn’t actually do much, other than leave her at the end. The story is the interior process of Armide going from power to vulnerability to death.
And then there is all the business about Louis XIV. During the opening sequences, we keep getting shots of labels or picture frames that refer to the fact that in 1661, Louis began to govern on his own. Louis and Armide are set up as parallel to one another – is it because they both hold power by force of personality, or a kind of magic? After all, Louis was very much about performing his own power via music and masques and court ritual. Or perhaps it is meant as a contrast, in that Louis, unlike Armide, maintains the proper balance of wisdom and concern for glory or reputation. Near the end of the opera, when Armide has collapsed on the floor in despair, Renaud notes that glory doesn’t have to be cold and cruel and indifferent – given that earlier on he sets himself up as indifferent to softer feelings, I guess he has learned a lesson? But he leaves anyway. He’s a better example of noble behavior than Armide, it seems.
French baroque opera always seems to include a lot of parts for allegorical figures sung by sopranos with light, glossy, bright voices that sound very similar to one another. It’s true here – but it works, because the musical effect is supposed to be sort of fragile and magical and abstracted. (I was half wondering what it would sound like to drop someone with a more “Marmite” sort of voice into an opera like this – might be interesting.) Stéphanie d’Oustrac has a perfect voice for the part of Armide. I think she’s a mezzo, but it’s a lighter sort of mezzo – she’s definitely distinct from all those allegorical sopranos mucking around in this opera, but not so distinct that either she or they seem out of place. It’s a great performance – the music sounds clean and elegant and free of excess ornamentation, but also with just the right amount of emotional force. This is a fairy-tale type story in a sense, and the individual characters are supposed to be a little bit abstract while still remaining interesting; d’Oustrac hits the right balance here. She’s great.
And she’s not alone. As far as soloists go, there’s not a single dud in the box here. Paul Agnew as Renaud was also impressive – Renaud and Armide’s duet towards the end of the opera is one of my favorite parts of this. Renaud is often accompanied by a prominently featured lute in the orchestra – whether it means anything or not, it sounds nice. The lute comes back when Renaud says goodbye to Armide and leaves – according to the internet, lutes often symbolized both love and transience/death.
(here and here are the rest of that sequence, including Armide’s last aria, which is wonderful. I would be more specific about what these sections are called and where in the opera they are, but this is a library DVD, and the booklet which presumably had a track listing has taken what they used to call French leave.)
Also impressive were Renaud’s various friends and the tenor who sings the “happy lover” as part of a little masque/entertainment that Armide stages for Renaud before he dumps her. I haven’t heard such a nice collection of male voices all in one place for quite a while.
So. This was extremely enjoyable to listen to. There may be more Lully in my near future.