Dahlin, Anders J.


ArmideJean-Baptiste Lully - Armide

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 2008 | Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, Robert Carsen, Stephanie d’Oustrac, Paul Agnew, Laurent Naouri, Claire Debono, Isabelle Druet, Nathan Berg, Marc Mauillon, Marc Callahan, Andrew Torise, Anders J. Dahlin | FRA Musica

It’s difficult to know what balance to strike when putting on a production of a Baroque opera since, in many cases, the works in question are incredibly old and so rarely performed that they are indeed often being introduced for the first time in centuries to a new modern audience. You can’t go too far wrong with a straightforward staging using traditional painted backdrops and period costumes (which I’ve seen on DVD, for example, in productions of Cavalli’s La Calisto, Rameau’s Zoroastre or Landi’s Il Sant’ Alesio). While they would certainly cater to a specialist audience, it’s hard to imagine those kinds of productions reaching a larger audience or even being revived too often. I find however that William Christie, with whatever director he is working with, strikes a much better balance between fidelity to the spirit of the original Baroque opera – using period instruments of course – and making use of modern theatrical techniques that don’t so much revise the work as put it into a context that makes it more accessible to a wider audience. That’s certainly the case when working with the opera director Robert Carsen (Les Boréades), who also manages – whatever period of opera composition he is working in – to align the opera to a unique and workable concept that gets to the essence of the piece and its themes, while also managing to be a remarkable spectacle.

The bridging of the gap between the past and the present is taken quite literally in this 2008 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide (1686), the prologue traditionally added to French opera of this time to praise and glorify King Louis XIV set out as if it were a tourist excursion to Versailles, where guides describe the history of the subject. Carsen, with film director François Roussillon, even go as far as filming the entire prologue sequence on location at Versailles, with ballet sequences much like the ones traditionally seen in the intervals of the televised New Year’s Day Concerts from Vienna. It’s a device that certainly uses modern technology to extend the scope of the theatre stage and the historical context – which simply has to be taken into account in any modern representation – setting the scene and location more effectively than any painted backdrop will do. And such techniques help bring the work more to life and set it into context for a modern audience, without altering the intent of the original, then why not?

There on the bed of the King of France then, Paul Agnew falls asleep and, like in a dream, goes back to a stylised past where the story of Armide unfolds. Thereafter, there is less cleverness and a more straightforward operatic staging, but like Carsen and Christie’s work on Rameau’s Les Boréades, it’s a highly stylised, fictional period setting, with elegant courtly uniformity of design and colour schemes to suggest location and mood. It’s utterly beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, making striking use of light and colour, but working also in coordination with the tone, mood and rhythm of the music score. Christie, an American, is a recognised national treasure in France for the work he has done breathing life into the dusty, stuffy academicism of old-fashioned French Baroque opera, works his usual wonders here with Lully. Although it follows the usual conventions of the five-act Baroque opera form, with recitative, aria and ballet sequences, there’s a wonderful flow to the piece, which doesn’t have the usual stop/start rhythms, but a musical coherence and gentleness that is closer to Monteverdi than the later heavier dance rhythms of Rameau.

The content of the opera itself – a mythological story of a noble knight who resists the lure of bewitchment from a dangerous siren (Ulysees, Parsifal) – is nothing special and not particularly dramatic, but it’s given a remarkably beautiful and sensitive treatment by Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault in their consideration of the characters and the emotional journey they undergo. The followers of the sorceress Armide are celebrating her latest victory over her rivals, but she herself is not happy, as she has failed to seduce the knight Renaud, who has remained immune to her charms. Over the course of the five acts, Armide eventually succeeds in her enchantment of Renaud, but falls in love with him – even the all-powerful are subject to sentiments that may render them powerless – and this causes her great emotional distress, torn between hatred and love, between glory and wisdom. These are of course personified in characters (Laurent Naouri is a red dress-wearing Hatred), but the production also attempts to implicate the actual audience themselves into the staging, which is a little gimmicky, but effective nonetheless in achieving its intentions.

As tastefully and as pitch-perfectly as Carsen, Christie and Les Arts Florissants present the work, in complete accord with each other and within the themes, tone and tenor of the original work, the singing brings out the wonderful, beautiful human touch and emotional heart of Lully’s opera work. Stephanie d’Oustrac takes Armide through a deeply emotional journey that culminates in her famous aria at the end of Act III (“Enfin, il est en ma puissance”), but she also harmonises beautifully with Paul Agnew’s wonderful Renaud in their Act V duet (“Armide, vous m’aller quitter”). Anders J. Dahlin also has the lovely aria of the fortunate lover in Act V, who advises all to take advantage of the fleeting years of youth and happiness before they are gone forever (again reminiscent of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo). It may seem like little more than a ‘divertissement’, glorifying noble sentiments that have the power to enchant (banishing Hatred and inspiring Love), but the proof of these powers is in the enchantment of Lully’s music itself.

There are no complaints with the presentation of the opera on Blu-ray. The image is clear throughout, conveying the stunning colour schemes perfectly, with bold reds standing out against the subdued uniformity of the silver/grey and gold tones. The soundtrack in the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes gives a wonderful, warm stage to the music and the singing. There’s a fine half-hour extra feature ‘Armide at Versailles’, which has Christie and Carson talking about their approach to the production, but also has a superbly informative contribution from Benôit Dratwicki on the fascinating history of the piece, its relevance to its time and its place in the tradition of the French tragédie-lyrique.

ZoroastreJean-Philippe Rameau - Zoroastre

Drottningholm Slottsteater Sweden, 2006 | Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Anders J. Dahlin, Sine Bundgaad, Anna Maria Panzarella | Opus Arte

First performed in 1749, the reason this wonderful piece of French Baroque opera from Jean-Philippe Rameau, court composer to Louis XV and contemporary of Bach, Scarlatti and Handel, stands up so well today is undoubtedly down to the timeless nature of its subject matter. Rather than being based on Greek gods and legends, Zoroastre rather is set in the fictional land of Bactria and its subject, dealing with the timeless struggle between forces of good and evil, a battle between darkness and light on a vast epic scale, could even lend itself to a science-fiction fantasy interpretation.

Here, Abramane takes advantage of the unexpected death of the King of Bactria to attempt to seize power through an alliance with the Princess Érinice, usurping it from the rightful heir, Amélite, and exiling her lover Zoroastre, who has already spurned the attentions of Érinice. Zoroastre however is inducted into a higher state of awareness by a guru, Oromasès, and returns to Bactria to save Amélite. An epic power struggle develops then between the forces of goodness and love on one side and evil and hatred on the other. It’s a familiar struggle, with Masonic references, that just as easily be connected to The Magic Flute (Zoroastre = Sarastro), as it could be a premonition of the French Revolution (or if you fancy a Eurotrash interpretation, even the Batman mythos and Dracula stories fit the model surprisingly closely).

This production however is utterly faithful to its period setting and presented with magnificent attention to the smallest detail. Performed in an 18th century theatre in Drottningholm in Sweden, with its highly effective original pulley-operated stage scenery, the production is beautifully costumed, impressively staged and immaculately lit, filmed exceptionally well, with unusual close-ups and angles that draw you in (although the semi-obscured shaky overhead shot is over-used and really offers nothing).

The same enthusiasm can be shown towards the performance. Although the plot can be a little obscure and there are indeed some long opera seria arias that can occasionally be testing - without the excess of any da capo singing it has to be said - there is nonetheless a surprising amount of engaging dramatic action and interaction that keeps it well-grounded, as well as some unusual dance moves that add well to the emotional expression. The orgy of bloodlust in the Black Mass sequence that takes up the whole of Act 4 is one of the most dramatically staged scenes you’ll see in any production, darker and more menacing than Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell.

Most effective in this respect is Rameau’s music itself, which has pounding baroque rhythms several hundred years before Michael Nyman appropriated them, but is also dynamic and lyrical, innovatively introducing clarinets into the orchestra ensemble. Les Talens Lyriques ensemble’s playing of this revived piece is exemplary, and the singing flawless, although particular mention should be made of Anna Maria Panzarella’s Érinice for her powerful singing, as well as the sheer emotional force contained within it and her intense performance.

On the technical side, the all-region Blu-ray is also pretty much flawless. 16:9 widescreen, the superbly lit production shows tremendous detail in its 1080i encode. My amplifier identified the audio tracks as full bit-rate PCM, in stereo and in 5.1, though it’s listed as Dolby True HD on the case, but uncompressed the surround track in particular gives wonderful tone and body to the period instrumentation, and offers a full dynamic range to the singing. In an hour-long documentary, the production team offer their thoughts on the opera and its staging. A visual synopsis and cast list is also provided, along with a booklet that puts the opera into context. A fascination production of a little-known baroque opera, this is a strong package all-around, one that certainly merits a couple of viewings.