The second joint production between Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera takes place this month with two semistaged concert performances of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Armide. Led by two prominent figures on the international opera scene, conductor Jane Glover and director Fabrizio Melano, the production showcases some of today’s most promising young opera singers, with a cast drawn from current members and alumni of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and students in Juilliard’s Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts. The opera, first performed in Paris at the Académie Royale de Musique on September 23, 1777, will be performed in the original French.
The fourth of Gluck’s “reform operas,” which occupy a position of central historical importance as a bridge between Baroque opera and the achievements of Mozart, Armide was preceded by Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), Alceste (1767), and Iphigénie en Aulide (1774). While the first three may be better known today, Armide was singled out by the composer himself as “perhaps the best of all my works.”
By the time Gluck composed Orfeo ed Euridice, at the age of 48, there was growing recognition of the need for an alternative to the prevalent genre of opera seria, which by that point served principally as a vehicle for singers to show off their technical virtuosity. In his famous explanatory preface to the score for Alceste, Gluck cited the “the abuses that, introduced to it either by the misplaced vanity of singers, or by the excessive indulgence of composers, have for such a long time disfigured Italian opera” and expressed his intention to “restrict music to its true purpose of serving the poetry … without interrupting the action.” He also (somewhat snidely) added, “I have wanted neither to stop an actor in the greatest heat of the dialogue in order to wait for a tiresome ritornello, nor to stop in the middle of a word on a favorable vowel, nor to show off the agility of his beautiful voice in a long passaggio, nor to wait for the orchestra to give him time to recover his breath for a cadenza.”
Gluck set out to accomplish these goals by eschewing highly florid vocal writing in favor of a simpler musical style and by replacing opera seria’s typical structure of successive da capo arias and dry recitative with a more fluid, continuous texture of alternating short airs, arioso, and orchestrally accompanied recitative. In doing so, he hoped to direct the audience’s attention more fully to the opera’s story and the emotions of the characters rather than just the vocal abilities of the singers.
The brilliance with which Gluck implemented this approach is abundantly evident in Armide, a work New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini has called “a seemingly flawless masterpiece.” An allegory about the dangerous potential of love, the story is based on Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (“Jerusalem Delivered”), a mythologized version of the First Crusade. Gluck used the same libretto Philippe Quinault wrote for Lully’s famous 1686 opera of the same name, a bold choice that allowed him to pay tribute to the French operatic tradition while asserting his own right to inhabit it. His inclusion of choruses and dance, another departure from the conventions of opera seria, was an important connection to this tradition.
To sum up the plot, Armide (sung by Juilliard alumna/Lindemann Young Artist Emalie Savoy) is a sorceress and the Princess of Damascus. Her troops have defeated the invading crusaders, but Renaud (guest artist David Portillo), the most valiant of them, returns and singlehandedly liberates his comrades from Armide’s prisons. In retaliation, after initially planning to stab him, Armide seduces Renaud with her beauty and sorcery. She unwittingly falls under love’s spell as well, however, and even the intervention of Hatred (Juilliard alumna/Lindemann Young Artist Renée Tatum) and her demonic entourage from the underworld cannot release her from it. When Renaud eventually comes to realize what has befallen him, he bravely returns to his soldierly duty and deserts the heartbroken (and bitterly angry) Armide. The opera ends tragically with Armide ordering the destruction of her own enchanted palace and plotting her revenge on Renaud.
As Fabrizio Melano, the director of the Juilliard-Lindemann production, said in a recent telephone interview with The Journal, at first glance, the choice of this libretto seems very curious in the context of the rest of Gluck’s work. “He was writing reform operas, with simpler music, but decided to set this complex story, similar to what one would see in opera seria.” Still, we can surmise that for Gluck, the magical events and fantastical elements that play such a visible role in Armide were far subordinate to the dramatic force and emotional resonance of the story. Indeed, Gluck “concentrated on probing the characters’ emotions,” Melano said. “Armide is his greatest psychological character, with a very strong emotional presentation. In this regard, he surpasses Lully.”
Emalie Savoy’s understanding of the title role supports this view. “I have discovered Armide not only as a sorceress of renown but as a real woman with genuine human emotions; surrendering herself to love is at the same time her greatest fear and longing,” Savoy said in an e-mail to The Journal. “Embodying and conveying Armide’s passionate and strong spirit as she is torn between the desire for her personal freedom and the desperate want to love and be loved by Renaud has been one of the most exciting projects I have ever undertaken.”
While Armide has not been presented as frequently as some of Gluck’s other reform operas, it has had some notable champions, including Wagner, Berlioz, and Toscanini, who opened the Metropolitan Opera season with it in 1910. It was performed at Juilliard in 1999 with conductor Randall Behr and director Chas Rader-Schieber, but has not been seen at the Met since 1912.