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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Opera Review: Damascus, on a Budget

A semi-staged Armide bows at Juilliard.
New kids on the block: Emalie Savoy (standing) Wallis Giunta (l.) and Devon Guthrie (r.) in Armide.
Photo by Nan Melville © 2012 The Juilliard School/Metropolitan Opera.
On Wednesday night, Juilliard Opera unveiled the second result of the school's collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera: a semi-staged performance of Gluck's 1777 opera Armide at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The sparse non-production featured the Juilliard Orchestra and Chorus onstage and elegantly clad young singers performing in front of the band. Period performance specialist Jane Glover conducted.

Armide was Gluck's favorite among his own operas. The composer's innovative writing for the orchestra and chorus are to the fore, with memorable, dark textures in the 'cellos and basses driving the action forward. (This is what Berlioz idealized and strove to imitate in Les Troyens.) Another feature: the composer's compact, vocal lines, which create each character with firm, yet melodic phrases. The work is also a precursor of Wagner's leitmotiv technique.

Gluck's opera requires an overpowering female lead who can range from sweet seduction to overpowering rage in the final scene as the sorceress is abandoned. Emalie Savoy met both of those extremes. She was most potent in the scene where Armide summons the forces of Hell (in the persons of the chorus and soprano Renée Tatum) to end her romance with the knight Renaud. She recants in the middle of the scene, pulling a hard dramatic shift in temperament that created sympathy for this sometimes oblique character.

Ms. Savoy's performance was enhanced with a strong supporting female cast. Throughout the opera, the sorceress was flanked by two attending ladies, sung by  Wallis Giunta and Devon Guthrie. Hearing these three singers together was the chief joy of the opera's second act. Also impressive: Ms. Tatum was effective, but not hammy in the role of La Haine, the hellish embodiment of hate and heroic French opera style.

The opera's anti-heroine would be pretty lonely without a pious knight to seduce. Renaud was played by David Portillo, a lyric tenor with a pleasing, sweet tone. However, the character spends much of the action ensorcelled by Armide. He is a noble, but passive character until rescued by his even more pious buddies.

As those two questing knights, baritone Luthando Qave and  tenor Noah Baetge made a fine comic pair. Armed with half a brass curtain rod, they beat back hordes of invisible demons and great monsters that seemed to spring out of the woodwork of the Sharp Theater. They then had to contend with lovely minions of Armide, testing their virtues in a manner that recalls Sir Galahad's adventures in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

Yes, the drama is hokey, and the theatrical sensibilities of 16th-century Italian Renaissance poetry stand at far remove from our own age. But the value in this performance rests in the potent cast of young singers, and in appreciating Gluck's economy of expression and brilliant orchestration. The score was played with crisp severity by the Juilliard Orchestra under Jane Glover, who kept one eye turned to her cast as she conducted from the middle of the stage. 

In the minds of New Yorkers, it may be difficult to separate Gluck's work from Rossini's 1817opera Armida, presented at the Met in 2010 as a big-budget star vehicle for Renée Fleming. Although the two works share story points, characters and a common origin (in Torquetto Tasso's 1581  Italian romance Gerusalemme Liberata) they are very different operas. Gluck's work is a far superior product.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.