Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
Gluck, Armide - Peformance by Opera Lafayette and the New York Baroque Dance Company
by John Wall
On February 3, 2010, Opera Lafayette and the New York Baroque Dance Company brought their lavish production of Christoph Gluck's Armide to the Rose Theater at Columbus Circle, New York (seating chart pdf). Armide (1777) was Gluck's fourth opera for Paris, and his first and only opera on a tragédie lyrique libretto, indeed the same 5-act Quinault libretto set by Lully in 1686. Two 18th Century scores of Gluck's Armide are accessible online here.
Musically, Armide is one of Gluck's three greatest Paris operas, along with Iphégenie en Tauride (1779) and Orphée et Eurydice (1774). It is richly scored for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, horns, timpani, strings and harpsichord, and the vocal parts are of comparable quality and difficulty to the vocal parts in Gluck's Italian operas. For more information about Armide, see the liner notes by Mario Armellini included with the superb recording by Marc Minkowski on DG-Archiv.
Gluck's Armide presents difficult challenges for a HIP opera company, as it requires the great voices of a galant Italian opera, a large troupe of historically-inspired dancers, and a classical orchestra with accomplished soloists. Opera Lafayette succeeded brilliantly on all fronts, presenting the finest opera presentation I have yet seen in New York. Opera Lafayette again utilized the formula that has worked so well in previous productions. The singers concentrated on singing, with limited gesture, while costumed dancers from the New York Baroque Dance Company staged elaborate divertissements in each of the five acts.
To fit the opera into the three-hour window before union overtime kicks in, director Ryan Brown cut a few dances and choruses with solos, but tried to preserve as much as possible. In his program notes, he wrote "As a rule, French operas, whether Gluck's, Mozart's Idomeneo, or Berlioz's Les Troyens, seem ponderous and somehow amiss when their dances and/or divertissements are eliminated because the change in mood these divertissements provide from the intense actions of the principal characters is crucial to the emotional pacing of the works." Even though I had listened to Minkowski's recording the night before in preparation, I didn't notice the cuts but was captivated by the divertissements.
The notes by the Choreographer, Catherine Turocy, are so interesting that I am reproducing them below:
"There is no surviving period dance notation score from Jean Georges Noverre's original choreography for the dances of Armide. In fact, Noverre [1727-1810] was not a champion of dance notation as the system in use only recorded the steps of the dance and not the dramatic action. Hence, I have choreographed the work using steps described in the following treatises: Jean-Georges Noverre's Lettres sur La Danse et sur Les Ballets (published in Stuttgart in 1760), Gennaro Magri's Trattato teoricoprattico di hallo (published in Naples, 1779), and a 1782 unpublished manuscript of eight ballets and individual dances recorded in Feuillet notation and choreographed by Auguste Ferrère. The late 18th-century ballet style uses a 90 degree rotation of the legs, pointed and relaxed foot, complicated pirouettes with varying foot placements, full range leg extensions, and various expressive attitudes as well as acrobatic and virtuosic steps for grotesque characters.
"There are three genres of dance styles used in this production. In Acts I and V la danse noble et héroïque dominates and employs balancing on the points of the toes, the indeterminate pirouette where the dancer spins for as long as he is able, graceful attitudes of the body, as well as virtuosic dance passages described in Magri's book which are still in use today. The port de bras and high use of the arms are typical of the "high dancing" used on the stage at the end of the 18th century. Following the Italian tradition, pantomimic gestures associated with danza parlante are used mostly in Acts II and IV which are in la danse demi-caractère style. The more exaggerated and acrobatic Grotesco style works well with the music and the character of the demons in Act III. The use of the mask for dancers, although common practice on the French stage until the end of the 18th century, was not favored by Noverre. Therefore I only use the masks when the dancers are portraying Demons disguised as shepherds, shepherdesses and nymphs and when they are clearly Demons in Act III.
"Please note that as Magri says: "We moderns do not measure the cadence with the steps as did the ancients, for whom each step occupied one bar. We run more beats into one (dance) step and we put more steps into one bar." He later emphasizes that although the chaconne often begins in the staccato style and shifts to languido, fugato, sostenuto, andante, etc., the dancer should adapt his steps to the different moods of the music but the actual tempo remains constant through the shifting markings. He describes the chaconne as being one of the slower dances." (Ms. Turocy presented a paper at the Noverre Dance Symposium at New College, Oxford in April 2010. Abstracts.)
The result was the most enjoyably varied evening of historical dance I have had the privilege to see, which served as well as an educational comparison of differing features and traditions in late 18th Century dance. And alongside the fine divertissement stagings was a strong cast of singers who performed stylishly and effectively. Most impressive was Dominique Labelle in the dominant and difficult role of Armide.
The orchestra, comprised of leading early instrument musicians mainly from the Washington to New York corridor, sounded very well rehearsed. The Rose Theater was another star of the performance. It's the premiere venue in New York for early opera, with superb acoustics throughout. I was particularly impressed by the clarity of woodwinds sounds from the clarinets and flutes, and by the broad soundstage that can scarcely be approached by the most elaborate stereo systems.
In sum, I wish this performance were available on DVD for repeated enjoyment.
Ryan Brown, Conductor
Catherine Turocy, Choreographer
Armide: Dominique Labelle, soprano
Renaud: William Burden, tenor
La Haine: Stephanie Houtzeel, mezzo-soprano
Sidonie, Lucinde, Un Plaisir: Judith van Wanroij, soprano
Phénice, Mélisse, Une Bergère: Nathalie Paulin, soprano
Artémidore, Le Chevalier Danois: Robert Getchell, tenor
Hidraot: William Sharp, baritone
Aronte, Ubalde: Darren Perry*, baritone
La Naïade: Adria McCulloch*, soprano
Lafayette Young Artists Program
Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Chorus
The New York Baroque Dance Company
Tonight's choreography by Catherine Turocy was commissioned by Opera Lafayette and is a world premiere. Costumes by Marie Anne Chiment and Catherine Turocy.
Opera Lafayette Orchestra
Opera Lafayette Chorus
*Member, Opera Lafayette Young Artists Program