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David J. Baker
Opera News, June 2009

As he has shown in other Naxos issues such as Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice [8.660185–86], conductor Ryan Brown excels at period style, spirited pacing and a canny economy with fragile resources.

You can never write off these performers. A singer of two secondary roles, tenor Tony Boutté, will suddenly seize attention in an eloquent passage like the Act IV duet with the apparition Lucinde. After an underwhelming start, leading tenor Robert Getchell becomes a convincingly, meltingly smitten Renaud in his graceful desert scenes with the heroine. Splendid touches are contributed by basses François Loup—the stylish singer of Hidraot and Ubalde—and William Sharp, while four sopranos give refined accounts of supporting roles.

The headliner, German-born mezzo Stephanie Houtzeel, is intelligent and touching as Armide. She responds to Lully’s probing evocations of tension, conflict, shame and despair in a nuanced, lyrical portrayal. There could be more weightiness, especially in the lower register for the heroine’s dramatic appeal to Hate (“Venez, Haine implacable”) to help her resist Renaud.

Reedy tone in certain instruments (especially the oboes’ upper register) restricts the sound palette, but the chorus and band are poised and alert. The set dispenses with the prologue, as was customary, the notes report, in French productions throughout the eighteenth century, when Lully’s masterpiece remained a firm favorite in one revival after another.

Ron Salemi
Fanfare, May 2009

Armide is Lully’s last completed opera, or tragéie en musique to give it its proper designation. This recording from Naxos is, in general, a very good one. The best singing comes from the two tenors, Robert Getchell and Tony Boutté, both of whom have attractive voices and sound appropriately heroic. Stephanie Houtzeel as Armide also sings well, but sounds rather passive; it is hard to accept her as the forceful sorceress and leader of armies portrayed in the libretto. The rest of the singers provide good support, although I was disappointed by François Loup, especially in the role of Hidraot, where he seems to be trying to convey the character’s advanced age with his voice. The instrumental component of Opera Lafayette plays to perfection. The chorus is generally good, but occasionally sounds weak. Ryan Brown paces the opera well…This Naxos recording currently has the field to itself.

Robert Levine, April 2009

The Washington, DC-based Opera Lafayette’s recording under consideration here is trimmed. Gone is the Prologue, which is the usual love poem to Louis XIV that these operas called for, this one with the allegorical figures of Wisdom and Glory praising him to the skies. It contains some lovely music, but is superfluous to the plot; it was cut as early as 1761 (probably a political rather than musical decision; in any event Louis never saw the work). Conductor Ryan Brown also chops a few repeats in the dances, one of the Shepherd’s arias, and a few minutes of the fourth act. I didn’t miss any of it, dramatically…Brown gives us two hours of cohesive music-drama.

The plot is well-known, and in fact the same libretto (by Phillippe Quinault) was set by Gluck in 1776 (the Lully dates from 1686). Opera lovers also will be familiar with the Rossini and Handel operas that treat the story of the sorceress Armida’s infatuation with the knight, Rinaldo; there are variations, but the outlines are the same.

Lully’s opera, his last, was a great and lasting success, what with demons destroying enchanted palaces and all, and with music that never ceases to please. Both leads are well drawn, with Armide’s wickedness on a grand scale (her love for Renaud almost enough for us to feel for her) and Renaud’s valor and sweetness displayed in equal proportion. The dance intervals are colorfully scored and utterly delightful.

The stars of this set, the mezzo Stephanie Houtzeel and tenor Robert Getchell, are excellent. She has plenty of character to her tone, sings with nice ferocity in her second-act “Enfin il est en ma puissance”, charm in the fifth-act love duet, and both resignation and fury in her final number. The voice is substantial, and while she never resorts to chest voice, a good snarl occasionally slips out. Laurens has only a slight edge over Houtzeel; the former is more comfortable with ornamentation and dramatic stresses.

No apologies need be made for Robert Getchell, a “French” tenor of the best kind, heroically “bright” enough and gently loving enough, singing with fine French diction. And his tone is beautiful. (A note: He studied with Howard Crook.) The cast’s other standout, tenor Tony Boutté, sings a Danish Knight (some of his music is omitted in Act 4) and a Lucky Lover and I’m sure he will soon be graduating to the role of Renaud. His voice sits high and is clear enough for Gluck’s Orphée as well.

William Sharp uses his not-very-weighty baritone voice to enliven La Haine, and he means every word. As Armide’s confidantes, Ann Monoyios and Miram Dubrow are effective, though the latter strays from pitch early on as Sidonie. François Loup, doing double duty as Hidraot, Armide’s wicked uncle, and Ubalde, Renaud’s good friend, oversings as the former to compensate for a tone not quite large enough. The others are all excellent…To sum up, not only is this set the only one currently available, it’s a bargain and very good all around. You’ll miss about 30 minutes of music, but the two hours you do get are splendid.

Julie Anne Sadie
Gramophone, April 2009

A new American edition presents Lully’s sorceress in a fresh light.

Ryan Brown’s Opera Lafayette relies on leaner instrumental forces than Herreweghe’s La Chapelle Royale, so one immediate difference is of sonority. The European sound is lavish and operatic, due in part to the set-up of the recording. The impression given by this new recording is of chamber music: the acoustic is drier and more intimate. Unless one has the benefit of comparison, it may not matter; for some, however, the less resonant sound may diminish the sense of the original spectacle intended by Lully and his collaborators…Stephanie Houtzeel and Robert Getchell deliver sensitive and characterful interpretations, and do not disappoint in the big monologues and the Act 5 duet. Francois Loup, Ann Monoyios and Tony Boutte, each taking two roles, also deserve praise.

John W Barker
American Record Guide, March 2009

Using the new edition of the score by Lully editor Lois Rosow, he has assembled a cast of mostly young American singers (10 of them in the 14 roles) who cope quite well with French diction and with the musical style. The male singers are particularly satisfying, particularly Loup as the oafish Ubalde, but also Getchell as Renaud. Lully wrote the title role for a mezzo-soprano, and Houtzeel has an all-too-matronly tone quality, with a certain degree of wobble: dramatically suggestive, but less than ideal musically. A standout among the women, though, is the pert-voiced veteran Ann Monoyios in her small but telling roles. The chorus of 17 and the orchestra of 27 both do their work with tidiness and spirit.

Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, December 2008

Armide was the final collaboration between Lully and librettist Philippe Quinault. Though it wasn’t the final work written by Lully, it was the final tragédie en musique. It was premiered in 1686 at the public theatre in the Palais Royal; the premiere having being much postponed owing to both Lully’s and Louis XIV’s illnesses. In fact, Louis never saw Armide, the combination of Lully’s involvement in a sex scandal—with a young man—and the court’s increasing religiosity meant that Louis distanced himself from his favourite composer.

Armide has appeared on CD before. In fact Philippe Herreweghe has recorded it twice but neither of these seems to be available at the moment. This new disc from Opera Lafayette has the virtue of being based on live performances—not staged but with dancers—which were critically well received.

The opera’s plot, taken from Tasso, deals with the sorceress Armide’s love for the knight, Renaud…The five act structure manages to include a substantial dance divertissement in each act. In the first act it is just general jollity, but in act 2 the divertissement depicts Armide’s nymphs putting Renaud to sleep. Act 3 is the scene with La Haine’s followers. Act 4 is almost entirely divertissement as the two knights encounter all sorts of magical creatures. Then finally in Act 5 Armide, full of dark foreboding, leaves Renaud to be entertained by a troop of Pleasures and Fortunate Lovers. Lully and Quinault’s trick was to tie these quite strongly into the plot and to provide a main character whose strong emotions keep the opera’s plot on course. Without a strong Armide, the opera would degenerate into a group of disparate dance episodes.

… For this performance conductor Ryan Brown has cut the opera so that it lasts less than 2 hours whereas Philippe Herreweghe’s uncut version lasts some 30 minutes longer. This involves the complete removal of the prologue and the trimming of Act 4. Ever since the work’s first performance there have been complaints that Act 4 was repetitious and lacking any relevance to the action. On his first recording Herreweghe cut it entirely. On this disc Ryan Brown has cut the final scene in the Act as well as performing minor surgery on some of the other divertissements. His major change is the removal of the entire prologue, which it could be argued is an essential part of the genre of tragédie en musique.

On my initial audition of this recording my first reaction was to note how perky the performance was. Ryan Brown’s account of the work seems entirely to lack the weighty gravity that you expect from a tragédie lyrique. In some ways, this is entirely to the good as the dance numbers really do dance. But in the more serious sung pieces and even the most tragic ones the singing is often underpinned by an accompaniment which is entirely too lively and jaunty for my taste. In the great scene in Act 3, where Armide summons La Haine, this spirit is entirely too happy in his work; he and his followers come over as a very jolly lot. Some of this is to do with the rhythmical foundation of the accompaniment, the length of dotted rhythms, but Brown seems to be using quite a small instrumental group.

All this had me scurrying back to Herreweghe’s second (1993) recording which, though technically unavailable, does crop up for sale on the internet. Herreweghe uses a rather bigger instrumental group, but more importantly his whole interpretation is weightier. His accompaniments are just as pointed as those by Brown, but Herreweghe and his group imbue Lully’s rhythms with a massiveness which underpins the performance exactly as it should.

Turning to the singers, Brown’s cast are a capable and talented bunch and if you buy this recording you will not have too much to complain about in the vocal department. Stephanie Houtzeel conveys much of Armide’s tragedy, though in her important Act 2 monologue she does not move as much as Guillaumette Laurens for Herreweghe. More importantly, Houtzeel’s vocal delivery is rather stylised, with minimal vibrato and a strange squeezing effect on the individual notes. As a vocal effect it is striking but for a whole opera it starts to pall. I kept longing for Laurens straight delivery and super French declamation. Another point is that Houtzeel is a mezzo whereas Laurens is a soprano. There are occasional moments when the role seems to go out of Houtzeel’s comfort zone.

Robert Getchell as Renaud has relatively small and passive part. But Getchell has an impressive high tenor voice which mellifluously gets round Lully’s lines though there are moments when he seems to get a bit tired. Though I have long been an admirer of Howard Crook, who is the Renaud on Herreweghe’s disc, in fairness I must admit that Getchell is entirely at home in the part on this disc.

The remainder of the cast are creditable and support admirably. Francois Loup, who appears as Hidrao and Ubalde, has a rather dry voice and delivers his part efficiently but without stirring you; likewise William Sharp who entirely fails to thrill as La Haine. Their counterparts on the Herreweghe recording are possessed of admirably resonant voices and deliver Lully’s lines in thrilling manner.

Apart from vocal characteristics, the biggest difference between the performances on the two discs is in the character of their declamation of Lully’s vocal lines. Herreweghe’s cast have a stylish and vivid way in this tricky field, injecting their vocal lines with passion and power. Brown’s cast, on the other hand, do not quite have the measure of how powerful Lully’s music can be in tandem with Quinault’s words. Or perhaps this is all a matter of style and I should simply accept that this new disc performs Lully in a lighter modern manner.

The CD booklet contains a good article and plot summary but you have to go to the Naxos web-site for the libretto.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2008

Though Lully was to write a large number of works for the stage, it was with Armide, completed in the year before his untimely death, that he reached the zenith of his creativity. Without his presence the work was subsequently to undergo many changes—often well meaning—so that it was passed down in a different shape to the original concept. Though he became the most influential musician in 17th century France, he was born in Italy and christened Jean-Baptiste de Lulli. His claim to high parentage was untrue, his parents so poor that a monk took care of him, and it was he who taught the boy the basics of playing the violin. He arrived in Paris as a teenager with the aim of teaching Italian to Mademoiselle de Montpensier, but as she did not take to him, he was fortunate to be heard, by people with money, playing the violin. More tuition and he arrived at the court of the young Louis XIV employed as an accomplished composer and dancer, and he was to compose ballets that he danced with Louis. His association with the King opened influential doors, and in 1672 was allowed to form a theatre in Paris while his rival was ordered to close. There he took French opera to rival the best Italian music, and today 16 of those operas still survive. The story of Armide involves the love of the sorcerer, Armide, for the bravest of the Christian Knights, Renaud, whom she ensnares. His knights come to rescue him, and when brought back to his senses he resolves to leave her enchanted palace. In anger she is on the point of destroying him, but love triumphs and instead chooses to destroy her palace and all that inhabit it. The present performance from the American group, Opera Lafayette, base their recording on Lois Rosow’s new edition of the original 1686 score. It uses period instruments that bring an originality I find most rewarding, the sound much different to anything I have heard in Lully before. We have not the slightest idea of the vocal quality used by singers in the 17th century, but it was most probably very different to that which we hear in this performance, as it is very much of our time. From a technical point of view it is accomplished, Stephanie Houtzeel’s Armide being very persuasive, while Robert Getchell is a gentle lyric tenor of real quality. Maybe their efforts at a passable shake is still in the making. The remainder of a large cast—some coming from the Lafayette’s admirable chorus—is more than pleasurable. The performance is conducted by Ryan Brown, who keeps the music moving at a nice pulse and avoids the present Baroque predilection for taking everything fast. You do feel the sense of a ‘live’ presentation in the way the engineers have recorded the opera.

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