We started the evening with Armide, a 1686 opera by Jean Baptiste Lully. Armide was premiered on February 15, 1686, during the reign of Louis XIV (commonly referred to as “the Sun-King)”, and is generally regarded as a masterpiece of the tragédie en musique sub-genre (invented by Lully and his librettist, Phillipe Quinault) that dominated French opera during that era. The piece is completely a product of its time and situation – the King would frequently dance in Lully’s compositions, although he did in fact not do so at the premiere of the work in question (something that caused Lully much consternation), and was quite active in sponsoring artists and composers in his court. Indeed, Armide has numerous extended stretches intended for ballet, and ballet became such a mainstay of the French court that ballet sequences became a traditional part of French opera, even well after Louis’ death. Written as Lully was approaching the last year of his life, it is considered to be both a masterpiece for him and for the tragédie en musique style.
While Lully’s works were neglected and rarely performed for many years, Lully and his work have seen great benefit from the recent surge in period performance. While this recording is one of only a few that are commercially available, this number has increased in recent years, and there is now a DVD of a different staging of the piece. This is a good thing, as Lully’s works, with Quinault supplying excellent librettos, are considered by some scholars as having helped establish opera as a permanent genre of music in Europe. A little bit of history, reclaimed and clarified, returned to us.
Plot Synopsis (taken from a site hosted by University of North Texas):
- The Prologue, set in “a palace,” is a dialogue between the goddesses Wisdom and Glory. They praise the Hero whom they both love (a reference to Louis XIV, Lully’s patron), and summarize the experience of Renaud, who in the end chooses Glory and Wisdom over his love for Armide. (These prologues are a standard part of operas written for Louis’ court.)
- The first act begins in a great square “ornamented by an Arch of Triumph” in the city of Damascus. Phénice and Sidonie praise Armide’s triumphs over the Crusaders whom she has taken captive. The sorceress, however, is aware only that she has been unable to prevail over Renaud. She expresses her anger and frustration in a majestic air, Je ne triomphe pas du plus vaillant de tous (“I have not conquered the most valiant of all”). Armide’s uncle, the sorceror Idraot, urges his niece to choose a husband, but she will consider only someone who can conquer Renaud–if anyone can. Arontes, who has been left guarding Armide’s prisoners, staggers in dripping blood and drops dead after announcing that Renaud has rescued them.
- Renaud is discovered in the second act in a “pleasant countryside” with Artemidore, one of the knights whom he has rescued. After assuring Artemidore that his heart is safe from Armide’s spells, Renaud sends him away. Idraot and Armide conjure up demons to put Renaud to sleep. The hero admires his surroundings and prepares himself for sleep in his well-known air de sommeil (“sleep aria”), Plus j’observe ces lieux (“The more I observe this place”). The demons, in the shape of nymphs and shepherds, weave their spells over Renaud in a ballet sequence. Armide enters, intending to kill Renaud as he sleeps. She is overcome by love for him instead, and decides to spirit him away and bind him to her through sorcery. Her recitative monologue, Enfin, il est en ma puissance (“At last, he is in my power”), is considered among the greatest of Lully’s dramatic recitatives.
- Act three takes place in a desert, where Armide is struggling with the perils of success. Her spells have brought Renaud entirely into her power. Nevertheless, she is troubled because while she is deeply in love with the hero, he is bound to her only by her spells. In her monologue air Venez, venez, Haine implacable (“Come, come, implacable Hate”), Armide invokes the spirit of Hate to rescue her from her love for Renaud. Hate and her followers perform a powerful invocation in which they break Cupid’s arrows and gloat over their impending victory over Love. In the end, Armide cannot give up Renaud and sends Hate away. Hate curses Armide, condemning her to the punishment of undying love.
- The fourth act brings several of Renaud’s companions to the desert of Act three in search of their leader, where they are bewildered and led astray by monsters and traps laid by Armide.
- Armide’s enchanted palace provides the setting for Act five, which begins with the only love scene between Armide and Renaud. Armide leaves the Pleasures and a troop of Fortunate Lovers to amuse Renaud in an extended divertissement while she retires to the Underworld to consider her situation. In her absence, the Danish knights from Act four discover Renaud, thereby breaking her spell. Armide returns in time to confront Renaud as he leaves her, imploring him to take her with him as a captive if he will not remain as her lover. He hesitates, but Duty and the call of Glory overcome his feelings for her; he leaves with his companions. Armide, left alone, laments his loss and her inescapable love in her celebrated final monologue, Le perfide Renaud me fuit (“The perfidious Renaud flees from me”). The demons destroy her enchanted palace, and Armide exits in a flying chariot. (Some recent performances has Armide committing suicide instead of exiting).
This 1992 Harmonia Mundi recording features Guillemette Laurens, Howard Crook, Bernard Deletré, Véronique Gens, Noémi Rime, John Hancock, Gilles Ragon, with Philippe Herreweghe leading the Collegium Vocale and the La Chapelle Royale.
Our second opera of the evening is a 1975 recording if I Capuleti e I Montecchi, by Vincenzo Bellini. I Capuleti, based on the same source material that William Shakespeare, was written for the 1830 Carnival season in Venice, and is considered one of the finest examples of the bel canto singing style. This was something that Bellini specialized in, as he has a number of works (Norma, I Puritani, La Sonnambula and Beatrice di Tenda, along with tonight’s work) that are considered excellent examples of the style, and which are performed quite frequently.