Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Review: (Toronto) Armide

Photo: Bruce Zinger / Marie McDunnough & Jack Rennie, Artists of Atelier Ballet.

The One by Lully
Armide - the singer and the opera - are gorgeous
by Axel Van Chee

The story of Armida by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso about an Arabian sorceress and her unrequited love with the Christian soldier Rinaldo during the First Crusade is a popular subject in opera literature; Handel had one (of course, it is actually harder to name what he doesn't have), Gluck had one, Rossini had one, even Dvorak and Haydn, who is not exactly known for his operatic works had one. The first known rendition of the poem in operatic form however, is Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide, first performed in 1686, and it opens at the Elgin Theatre in a visually stunning production by Opera Atelier.

Reincarnated from its 2005 run, Marshall Pynkoski unfolds the story like an enchanted fairy-tale manuscript, with the sets and costumes exquisitely designed by Gerard Gauci and Dora Rust D’Eye. There are intricate details everywhere, enfolding both Asian and Western motifs to further accentuate the conflicts between the East and the West. The lighting design by Bonnie Beecher further adds a layer of spectacles to the opera.

The highlight of the production is Peggy Kriha Dye’s searing, impassioned portrayal of the title role Armide.

Conducting Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, David Fallis is a pleasure to watch, although musically, it is a little bit too light to my liking. The standout is the remarkable Tafelmusik Chamber Choir who sings with beautiful phrasing, intonation and diction. Together, it was like a musical soufflé, airy and delicate.
The singing is strong from the cast if somewhat one-dimensional. Colin Ainsworth whose voice is perfectly suited for early music is a virile and youthful Renaud. Sopranos Carla Huhtanen and Meghan Lindsay are pleasant voiced Phenice and Sidonie. Baritone Olivier Laquerre and tenor Aaron Ferguson adds much appreciated comic relief as a pair of Christian soldiers rescuing Renaud in Act 4. The highlight of the production is Peggy Kriha Dye’s searing, impassioned portrayal of the title role Armide. Her singing is so nuanced and dramatic that at times, it seems she is in a separate opera all on her own.

Speaking of dramatic tension, well, this opera really has very little. Armide moves slowly and is punctuated by lots and lots of ballets as customary for French operas, all gorgeously choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and brilliantly executed by the Atelier Ballet. But the pacing is not the fault of Opera Atelier, nor in fact, Lully’s. It is simply the stylistic shift in the last few hundred years. The meandering and repetitive phrasing that was a convention and popular at the time of Lully is just out of fashion today. It is important to know however, that French opera as we know it today, started in the court of King Louis XIV with Lully (who was an Italian himself), and developed separately from the Italian genre. So for those who are not accustomed to the early baroque sound or story-telling, Armide is a rare and curious history lesson. And those who love baroque operas will devour this like a pack of wolves, demanding for more. 

Armide continues to April 21

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