When Toronto’s Opera Atelier announced that its production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide would be touring to Paris this spring, it sounded like a big step.
But, as anyone who attends Armide will learn, the big step looks to be a surefooted one. Toronto’s “period” baroque opera company has drawn on resources it’s built up over the years to remount a 2005 production that’s firing on all cylinders.
The heart of the matter, as underscored by director Marshall Pynkoski, is love. And unlike many baroque operas – full of twists, turns and complex subplots – Armide (with a libretto by Phillippe Quinault) is strikingly direct.
During the Crusades, the enchantress Armide attempts to ensnare the knight Renaud, but ends up falling for him. She thinks she’s being merciful in choosing love over hate, but she soon discovers that love can be much crueler.
Opera Atelier couldn’t have done better, for the title role, than soprano Peggy Kriha Dye. Her talents come as no surprise: This is her 10th production with the company, and she’s well known for her command of baroque style. On Tuesday night, her phrases were well shaped, intonation was excellent in all registers and her sheer stamina was impressive. (She’s on stage, singing, for most of this opera’s five acts.)
Adding to all this was her dramatic mastery of this complex role. Her Armide was wary yet trusting, impervious yet vulnerable, and fearsome yet pitiable – all at the same time.
Opposite her, as Renaud, was tenor Colin Ainsworth, also a veteran of many Opera Atelier productions. Throughout, his voice was bright, clear and supple. His character was perhaps less complicated than poor Armide, but when he chose duty over love his inward struggle was poignant and convincing.
There were more gems in the cast. Mezzo-soprano Meghan Lindsay virtually owned the “enchanted forest” scene, with her pure, lyrical delivery; and soprano Carla Huhtanen was a charming and delicate-voiced apparition. Joao Fernandes, as Hidraot (Armide’s uncle), lent gravity to his scenes with his rich and sonorous bass.
A short but powerful scene featured the stentorian bass Curtis Sullivan as La Haine (Hate). Love was represented, too – not by a singer, but by dancer Jack Rennie, who seemed quite unencumbered by the large pair of wings strapped to his back.
There was also comic relief, thanks to tenor Aaron Ferguson and baritone Olivier LaQuerre – two knights who shrieked and howled at imaginary monsters in the orchestra pit.
In fact, the pit was inhabited by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, elegant and nimble under David Fallis, especially in the many dances choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, such as the lilting minuet with castanets and finger-cymbals.
Gerard Gauci’s Persian-inspired scenery transforms Armide into a grand spectacle. So, too, do Dora Rust D’Eye’s Bollywood-coloured costumes for the cast and dancers – although the chorus was clad in black, and kept offstage. From a side balcony the chorus was a discreet yet musically effective presence.
From May 11 to 13 this production will be remounted at the Royal Theatre at Versailles, where Armide was first staged in 1686. If the ghost of Lully still haunts the theatre, he should be well pleased by what he hears and sees.
© Colin Eatock 2012