Armide, Juilliard School New York

Academia rushes in where professionals fear to tread. And so it was on Wednesday.

Gluck composed Armide in 1777. A fabulous example of reform opera at its most ambitious, it almost validates the convoluted muddle of Philippe Quinault’s libretto. Narrative convolutions notwithstanding, the opera has had some illustrious champions, including Berlioz, Meyerbeer and Wagner.

In 1910 Arturo Toscanini brought it to the Met, where the staggering cast boasted Olive Fremstad, Enrico Caruso and Louise Homer (later Margarete Matzenauer). Still, Armide lasted only seven performances and never came back. In recent times it has turned up in occasional concert and student performances, most notably at Juilliard in 1999. Now, abetted by the Lindemann training programme of the Met, Juilliard has tried again.

The school didn’t – perhaps couldn’t – try too hard. The production, attributed to Fabrizio Melano, was “semi-staged”. Translation: orchestra and chorus, led with panache by Jane Glover, filled the space behind the proscenium. The boarded pit in front served as playing area for a handsome ensemble dressed, mostly, in elegant mufti. The singers strode on and off, struck poses and followed the conductor via video monitors on the balcony façade. There were no costumes and no sets. Sadly, there was no dancing.

Spirits remained high even when vocal standards did not. The lapses were understandable, also pardonable, given the enormity of the challenge. One cannot find many Fremstads or Carusos at the Met these days, never mind Juilliard.

The sorceress Armide is frantically agitated one moment, serenely introspective the next. Fearless rather than virtuosic, Emalie Savoy found the introspective passages most congenial. David Portillo, heralded as “guest artist”, brought radiant tone and dynamic finesse to the tenoral laments of the Crusader Renaud. Renée Tatum, impersonating Hatred, seemed like a nice girl sent in to do a bad woman’s job (our ears remain spoiled in any case by Ewa Podleś’ scary recording).

Whether well cast or miscast, everyone performed honestly, intelligently and, above all, eagerly. Even in sketchy approximation, mythological Damascus and Gluck cast a magical spell.

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