This recording is the third of Lully's Armide; the other two, from 1983 (Erato) and 1992 (Harmonia Mundi), were led by Philippe Herreweghe. The first, which I've not heard, eliminated the opera's fourth act, in which minor characters are tempted by Armide and the plot is otherwise not advanced. The second recording, starring Guillaumette Laurens and Howard Crook as Armide and Renaud, is complete and is an elegant reading, with some fire from Laurens.
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, but it's nice to know it can be heard on Herreweghe's second recording. 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.
I wish that Ryan Brown's orchestra were bigger; there are some moments in this work that require more sheer noise than 27 players can make (and they don't always play at once). Herreweghe gets it just right and the drama seems properly dark despite the inherent frills. 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. -- ClassicsToday.com, Robert Levine, April 2009