Notes and Editorial Reviews
"Gluckians must hardly believe their luck. Following close on the release of Alceste, which I reviewed in September (Orfeo/Harmonia Mundi S027823F), we now have his Armide, a work in a very different mould, looking back to the tragedies-lyriques of Lully and Rameau, forward to the Romantic era, and Berlioz in particular. No wonder Berlioz was enraptured by it; unquestionably the second part of Les troyens was influenced by Armide, the subject so similar; a warrior leaving the woman with whom he has just enjoyed the bliss of sensual love. While the work is shot through with the depiction of what Berlioz called "voluptuous languour", the result, as Gluck himself said, of trying to be "more painter and poet than
musician", it is the depiction of the central character that, in my opinion, gives it greatness. As Max Loppert puts it in his illuminating introductory essay to the set: "the stages of her development are precisely plotted, explored with infinite plasticity and variety in recitative, encapuslated in arioso and aria". Armide develops from the proud, avenging figure of the early scenes to the tragic heroine of the later ones, ensnared by her passion for Renaud, the tenor hero. Although the piece doesn't seem to me to rise to the elevated heights of Alceste's first two acts or to the dramatic consistency and concision of lphigenie en Tauride, its portrait of the "sublime and destructive power" (Loppert) of sexual love is superb in its own right, somewhat vitiated by the Fourth Act, admired by Loppert, but to my mind rightly considered ludicrous and irrelevant by Newman, for all the delicacy of the music therein.
The work was hardly helped, dramatically speaking, by the obscure, dour production by Wolf-Siegfried Wagner, Richard's grandson, at the 1982 Spitalfields Festival, which almost destroyed the compelling strength of the musical performance. Happily that interpretation, under Richard Hickox's persuasive baton, has been preserved, and on its own proves an apt advocate for the piece. The playing and singing of Hickox's own orchestra and chorus are always mindful of stylistic matters, crisp and airy in the sensuous dance music, urgent and theatrical (in the best sense) in passionate sections of the score, which Hickox holds together in exemplary manner.
Felicity Palmer is the Armide. She has done nothing better on record. With the advantage of stage experience in the work, she brings before us all the alternating rage and longing of the enchantress. Her aria at the end of the Second Act where she yields herself to love and then at the start of the Third, "Ah! si la liberte" (once recorded memorably by Frida Leider many years ago and now available on an EMI Electrola import-1C 14730 7856—not submitted for review), a lament for her lost freedom of action as she succumbs to passion, are both done with the utmost in expressive suppleness. The finale where Armide destroys her magic palace while despair grips her in halting, impassioned recitative, has a Callaslike intensity. Like that great singer, Palmer is occasionally harsh of tone and under pressure at the top of her register (for the recording, original pitches are restored—in the theatre transpositions downwards were allowed), but in a sense that only lends a vibrant truthfulness to her whole imperious performance.
One of the score's glories is the duet at the opening of the last act for Armide and Renaud, described by Newman as "foreshadowing all that was most beautiful and seductive in Romantic art". Here Palmer is joined by the mellifluous tenor of Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Renaud. The tenor's music has a high and taxing tessitura that Rolfe Johnson manages, for the most part, successfully, and in this duet the voices blend harmoniously. Renaud's blissful Second Act aria, "Plus j'observe ces lieux", where he regards the beauties of Armide's magic garden, is not ideally smooth in Rolfe Johnson's performance, but he is fully aware of its languid beauty.
The scene for Hate in Act 3 is a magnificent opportunity for a dramatic mezzo which, as in the theatre, is seized avidly by Linda Finnie, a singer unaccountably neglected by our major opera companies. However, she isn't always at her ease in the upper regions of her voice, where her tone is prone to discolour. Hickox and the choir support her splendidly in her expression of venom. Keith Lewis and Stephen Roberts do well by the faulty Fourth Act in which the Danish Knight and Ubalde are both almost seduced away from their crusading duties by the delights of images of former lovers conjured up to distract them, a kind of mirror-image of the main story. The many divertissements, which hold up the action but are lovely in themselves, are finely played.
Don't be put off by the account of Act 1 on the first side. There, Palmer is somewhat below her best, Raimund Herincx is overtaxed at this stage in his career by the high-lying baritone role of Hidraot, and neither of Armide's attendants find well-centred tone for their brief solos.
I earnestly hope success will attend this venture, and that it may even lead to one of our main opera companies adding the work to its repertory. The recorded sound is quite excellent with a sensible balance between voice and orchestra, and a natural acoustic as a whole."
-- A.B., Gramophone [11/1983]
Reviewing original release
Works on This Recording
Armide by Christoph W. Gluck
Sally Burgess (Mezzo Soprano),
Linda Finnie (Mezzo Soprano),
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Tenor),
Raimund Herincx (Bass),
Felicity Palmer (Soprano)
City of London Sinfonia,
Richard Hickox Singers
Written: 1777; Paris, France
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