It is a rare event to see an authentic period performance of a French Baroque opera in Warsaw in modern times. Even rarer is a performance of Armide, the last spectacle by the Italian-born French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). The recent fraught history of Warszawska Opera Kameralna since the passing of its former Artistic Director Stefan Sutkowski makes an objective assessment an additional challenge. One must admire the fortitude in the attempt to resuscitate and renew the artistic inspiration of this company. Will the artistic traditions of this distinguished organization survive into the future?
To properly judge the performance of such a work it is necessary to briefly examine the musical meaning of such stage productions to a seventeenth century audience which was rather different in motivation and expectation to ourselves. Under their Apollonian Sun King Louis XIV, France enjoyed an unsurpassed supremacy of taste, graciousness of manners and a fastidious brilliance in artistic and intellectual creation. In the seventeenth century the musical philosophy of Plato and its subsequent development was paramount.
Musical harmony reflected celestial harmony and the desired harmony between body and soul. Music was considered to exert a profound effect on a man’s moral life and temperament. The art became a formidable politicized weapon in the maintenance of absolute monarchy. Finally there was a requirement to establish a proper creative interaction between harmony, rhythm, language and dance intimately engaged with the subject of the opera or spectacle and the poetry itself. Inspired by the ancients, ballet and later opera became the favored dramatic forms. Were these musical criteria established and observed in this production?
The first performance of Armide, a ‘Musical Tragedy in Five Acts’, was in January 1686. The victory by King Jan Sobieski over the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Vienna had occurred as recently as September 1683. The subject of this opera then is perhaps unsurprising and singularly appropriate in that this production is taking place in Poland and in light of current events throughout the world.
The Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense under their conductor, the Australian Baroque and Classical repertoire specialist Benjamin Bayl, gave a fine account of the score. They have clearly absorbed the performance practice ideals of the French Baroque tradition. Le climat de Lully is gradually becoming second nature especially in the idiomatic support of the many dance sequences. Many were written in the, at times, challenging French baroque rhythms and cross rhythms of the noble and majestic French overture, danced gavottes, menuets, sarabandes and other dance forms. The dancing by the Nordic Baroque Dancers under their director Karin Modigh and the inspired baroque dance choreographer Deda Cristina Colonna, was a physically eloquent expression of the highly complex baroque dance notation. I was absolutely fascinated by the graceful and fluent movement of the feet where the fashions of the day laced the body into a rather upright posture seemingly only permitting the feet to express the required emotions, synchronized ensemble movements and resulting uplift of the spirit of the dance. Louis himself was a passionate dancer and often danced in Lully’s operas, in fact sponsored the first of the large scale court divertissements given during his reign. The harpsichord basso continuo support was especially skillful, strong and more to the point, loud enough to hear the harmonic counterpoint with the theorbo and lute that gave colour to the recitatives.
I return briefly to my philosophical opening to this review on a point of criticism. The Prologue was the most important feature of the French baroque opera. Certainly to cut it as was done in this production perhaps makes sense for a modern audience in terms of the anachronistic eulogies between Wisdom and Glory which claimed the fidelity of Louis XIV. However they also performed an important moral pedagogical function, an umbrella of moral thought and reflection under which the entire opera functioned according to Platonic principles. Can one simply overlook this moral imperative? Additionally there is some superb music and recitative contained within the Prologue.
Lully himself closely oversaw and controlled his opera productions with almost tyrannical attention to detail. He also often edited the wording of libretti provided by Phillipe Quinault (1635-1688), in this case an adapted story from the 16th century Italian poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). Lully jealously guarded his scores from all prying eyes except those of the king. To the composer’s great disappointment, the opera was not initially performed at court but at the Palais-Royal for the general public. It garnered immediate laurels and huge popularity followed. It was even performed for an extraordinarily exotic group of ambassadors to the French court – mandarins from Siam (Thailand). Informed that the heroine was not French, they observed: ‘If she had been French, she would not have needed magic in order to make herself loved, because the French are charming by themselves.’ When Armide’s palace burnt to the ground at the conclusion of the opera, they decided to leave as they thought their accommodation had been destroyed.
A vocal highlight for me among many (the singers augmenting their delivery with baroque declamatory gesture) was the dramatic role of Armidesung by the soprano Marcelina Beucher who seemed to me born to the role. After a superb orchestral Prelude to Act II Scene 5, complete with evocative wind machine and thunderous storm effects, she was utterly convincing in the monologue recitative expressing her great conflict, torn between the expression of power and the tortures of angst during the most notorious moment in the opera, that suspenseful moment when she cannot bring herself to murder Renaud. Soon she is to fall in love with him herself. The Vocal Ensemble of the Warsaw Chamber Opera directed by Krzysztof Kusiel-Moroz supported and augmented textual meaning from both above us on a gallery and adjacent on a thrust stage as an excellent supporting vocal cast. The formidable voice of Tomasz Rak in the role of La Haine (‘Hate’) emerging from dreaded Hell was enough to fill one with the greatest of fears. Another memorable and especially moving moment was the magnificent Passacaille on the nature of love ‘Les Plaisirs ont choisi pour asile’ accompanying the resilient although variable tenor, Aleksander Rewiński (Renaud).
Some rather amusing comic relief was given by the knight Ubalde (Piotr Pieron) and the Danish Knight (Sylwester Smulczyński) carrying a ‘diamond shield’ (polished metal in our case) to banish Armide’s spell over Renaud.
The magnificent voice of Hidraot, magician and King of Damascus, brings me to describe the absolutely opulent and stunning costumes brought directly from the Versailles atelier and wardrobe department. I gasped aloud and almost applauded like a child when the king appeared, possibly a magnanimous manifestation of Louis himself who dispenses the wisdom of a happy and distinguished marriage to the tempestuous Armide – without result. Followed by his full retinue, the king was caparisoned in a fabulously decorative outfit, the like of which one seldom if ever sees on the stage outside of the Opéra Royale at the Château de Versailles. The flamboyant ostrich feathers on all the helmets would have shamed the Folies Bergère.
This together with the inventive set designs of Francesco Vitali (a mixture of high technology laser lighting, projected video scenes and traditional structures) made the production a true spectacle in the full Lullian idiom. However I found the group of fluctuating onstage manikins (dressed and later naked) rather obscure in their symbolic significance. The precipitous collapse of Armide’s palace was a sudden and fiendishly dramatic techno conclusion to the opera.
Overall a marvelous night full of the orchestral delights of the wide-ranging emotional range of Lully’s music, song, inspired recitative and dance in addition to inventive staging and ravishing costumes. The production has achieved in many respects what I considered to be unachievable, an at least partial resurrection of the spirit of Stefan Sutkowski in his own sacred abode.
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