Magical powers, throngs of followers, independence and an unlimited supply of men: Armide has pretty much everything a woman could want. But she has a problem. The man she has fallen for only returns her affections because of the spells she casts. The one thing she really wants – genuine love – she cannot have. This will not end well.
Philippe Qinault’s libretto was a hit when the elderly Jean-Baptiste Lully turned it into a refined lyric tragedy in 1686. It was bold of Christoph Willibald Gluck to have another go at the text almost a century later, but the French reformer knew what he was doing, and the second Armide was widely admired. Subsequent history has been less kind to the opera, and it has slipped into an obscurity that is, on the strength of this Amsterdam premiere, entirely undeserved.
Barrie Kosky’s production focuses on the context of war and the loneliness of the title figure. Katrin Lea Tag’s set is a barren field sporting a few patches of herbs and some half-dead shrubs; behind is a tract of water. Blood-smeared soldiers limp or run, with or without armour, wielding swords or tossing them away. Kosky, the consummate entertainer, keeps a constant flow of movement and a narrative line, with a steady stream of gags and coups. Again and again he fills the vast stage with clouds of confetti, and lets secondary figures, some of them naked, cavort, splash or fall in the water.
At the heart of it all is the tragic heroine. In the title role, Karina Gauvin sings with melting warmth and subtlety, but exudes zero physical charisma as this sensuous seductress. Renaud, her hated lover (gloriously heroic from Frédéric Antoun), is quite the opposite, all feline grace and dreamy physicality.
For all the frenetic activity, Kosky’s production flounders in the ballet scenes, and loses steam as the evening wears on. The work has dramaturgical problems that this staging does not solve.
And yet we are left with a sense of elation at having discovered a piece well worth the effort. Every moment of Armide has glorious music, fresh, direct, lively and moving. Ivor Bolton keeps the superb Nederlands Kamerorkest brisk, yet gives the phrases time to breathe and grow. He does not always hold the chorus or ensembles together, but in general the singing is excellent, from Henk Neven’s thrilling Ubalde and Sébastien Droy’s wholesome Artémidore to Karin Strobos and Ana Quintans as the honey-voiced Phénice and Sidonie. The whole is a musical treat, worth more than one hearing.