Lully: Armide

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Armide
PERFORMER: Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Paul Agnew, Laurent Naouri, Claire Debono, Isabelle Druet, Nathan Berg, Marc Mauillon, Marc Callaghan, Andrew Tortise, Anders J Dahlin, Francesca Boncompagni, Violaine Lucas, Virginie Thomas; Les Arts Florissants/William Christie; dir. Robert Carsen
CATALOGUE NO: DVD: FRA 005 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format); Blu-ray: FRA 505 (1080i HD; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)

It’s a brilliant idea for François Roussillon’s film of Lully’s 1686 opera to feature a sequence at Versailles, where several of his works (though not this one) were premiered. In the Blu-ray version in particular, the resplendent detail of the lavish palace interiors is astonishingly real; the sight of dancers disporting themselves in the Hall of Mirrors is not something encountered every day.
But most of Robert Carsen’s intelligent, modern-dress production takes place on the stage of Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where William Christie and his ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, surpass themselves in revivifying this 325-year-old score with imaginative articulation and expressive flair. Gideon Davey’s designs are as impressive as Jean-Claude Gallotta’s choreography.
The cast, too, is remarkable. The Muslim sorceress Armide, who falls in love with the Christian knight Renaud, thereby failing to conquer both him and her own amorous desire, is wonderfully realised by Stéphanie d’Oustrac – a soprano as good to look at as to listen to. Holding slightly aloof from his own instincts is tenor Paul Agnew, whose singing and acting are both scrupulous. Between them they divide the meat of the piece, though there are important contributions from Laurent Naouri’s symbolic figure of Hate – who replicates Armide herself in male dress when she summons him up to help stiffen her resolve; from Nathan Berg as Armide’s uncle Hidraot and Marc Callahan as the knight Artémidore. All the smaller roles and the chorus and dancers are strikingly assured.
There’s also a 30-minute documentary (in French) in which Christie, Carsen and other experts on Baroque music or on Versailles itself discusses the piece and its context. Not only is the result a comprehensive package supplying an exemplary performance of an unfamiliar Baroque masterpiece, but it vindicates Lully as a great dramatic composer. George Hall