Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Through late 18th-century ears: Lully's Armide in a radical adaptation from 1778

Lully/Francoeur Armide; Véronique Gens, Reinoud van Mechelen, Tassis Christoyannis, Le concert spirituel, Hervé Niquet; Alpha Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 September 2020 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A radical re-working of Lully's opera, intended to make it suitable for the Paris stage in 1778

Lully/Francoeur Armide; Veronique Gens, Reinoud van Mechelen, Tassis Christoyannis, Le concert spirituel, Herve Niquet; Alpha Classics
History books tell us that the operas of Lully remained in the repertoire of the Paris Opera for much of the century following his death in 1687. Lully's final opera Armide (which premiered in 1686) was performed at the Paris Opera in 1745/46 and 1761-1766, and there were unfulfilled plans to bring it back in 1778 (Lully's Thesee was performed there in 1779). But opera was very different in Paris in the 1770s, and Gluck's Armide (which set Philippe Quinault's libretto written for Lully) premiered in 1777 to considerable controversy. Lully was still held in high regard by some, and we can get the image of the eighteenth century amateurs dutifully listening to Lully's music in contrast to the more fashionable, modern offerings. This fascinating set shows us that the reality was rather different.

This release from Alpha Classics presents a version of Jean Baptiste Lully and Philippe Quinault's Armide which was adapted by the composer Louis-Joseph Francoeur (1738-1804). Hervé Niquet conducts Le Concert Spirituel with Véronique Gens as Armide, Reinoud van Mechelen as Renaud, Tassis Christoyannis as Hidraot and La Haine, Chantal Santon Jeffery as Phenice and Lucinde, plus Katherine Watson, Philippe-Nicolas Martin and Zachary Wilder.

When the operas of Lully were performed in Paris and at court during the 18th century, the music was arranged, adapted and modernised by contemporary composers in order for the opera to fit into modern taste and to tailor the piece to the talents of the singers available. There was also the logistical issue, that the harpsichord fell out of use in the orchestra so had to be replaced. 

So, in the wake of the controversy of Gluck's wholesale re-setting of Quinault's libretto for Armide, thus creating a very different type of work, the then director of the Paris Opera had the idea of a revival of Lully's Armide and asked Louis-Jean Francoeur to adapt the music. The project never reached fruition, and the manuscript preserved is incomplete, but it gives us a fascinating window into the type of performance of Lully's operas that the eighteenth century experienced. This work of adaptation was a tricky business, sometimes enthusiastically applauded and sometimes not, when Jean-Joseph de Mondonville produced his version of Lully's Thesee in 1765 he was accused of heresy, and he chose to burn the score!

This 1778 version of Armide from Francoeur is far more than a simple re-orchestration of Lully's original. Recitative is accompanied by full orchestra, the accompaniment to vocal lines is re-written, the vocal lines themselves are sometimes regularised, counterpoint is added to the orchestral parts, in fact all the parameters of the musical texture are affected. There is even new music, a new overture (in the modern symphonic style) and new dances, including the replacement of Lully's Act Five passacaille. The vocal lines are adjusted so that the title role is now more in the heroic style of Gluck's opera and the booklet note suggests that the role was intended for Rosalie Levasseur, who created the title roles in Gluck's Armide, Alceste and Iphigenie en Tauride. The real strangeness comes in the great scenes, such as the end of Act II when Lully's original (a flexible mix of recitative and arioso) is 'modernised' to frankly rather disturbing effect.

Whilst one might think of Mozart's 1789 re-orchestration and adaptation of Handel in Der Messias, this Armide also makes me think of architect Sir John Vanbrugh's Castle Howard where, incomplete on Vanbrugh's death, Sir Thomas Robinson built the West Wing in the 'correct' later Palladian style and ignored the fact that this disrupted the intended symmetry of Vanbrugh's plan as the East and West Wings now fail to match.

The performances throughout are admirable, and everyone has caught the right accent for the piece. Both singers and instrumentalists keep the focus very much on 1778, so that the results are highly stylish. Véronique Gens as Armide, Reinoud van Mechelen as Renaud, and Tassis Christoyannis as Hidraot and La Haine are admirable in the way that they ensure that they are performing Francoeur's 1778 adaptation rather than the singers trying to pretend that this was original 1686 Lully.

The set comes in booklet form with complete libretto (and translations), plus an admirable article which explains exactly what we are listening to and gives us the right musical background along with plenty of illustrations contemporary designs.

When listening to this disc cold it is at times difficult to tell from which century the music comes, it is Lully but spoken with an 18th century accent. Perhaps, in performance there would be an element of cumulative power to the piece, but whilst Francoeur has undoubtedly enriched and brought interest to Lully's sometimes quite plain orchestral textures, you cannot help thinking that he has diluted the power of the piece. We hear the 17th century through decorative 18th century ears without ever achieving the heroic power that Gluck does in his works for Paris.

Lully's original Armide is, I think, one of his most accessible works. It has a plot which is, for the period, remarkably focused without the sort of decorative sub-plots which sometimes confuse the issue. For that we have to go back a recording of the original [Christoph Rousset's 2017 recording with Les Talens Lyriques on Aparte is a good place to start, see my review].

But what this disc does give us is a fascinating glimpse into the history of taste. The idea of performing ancient music in exactly the way the composer intended is very much a modern idea, and throughout history composers have re-worked older music, 'corrected' it to suit contemporary tastes. This disc allows us to get a flavour of that, to experience the music of Lully through late 18th century ears.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), Louis-Joseph Francoeur (1738-1804) - Armide (1686/1778) [137.08]
Armide - Véronique Gens
Reinoud van Mechelen - Renaud
Tassis Christoyannis - Hidraot, La Haine
Chantal Santon Jeffery - Phenice, Lucinde
Ketherine Watson - Sidonie, Un naiade, un plaisir
Philippe-Nicolas Martin - Arone, Artemidore, Ubalde
Zachary Wilder - Le chevalier Danois
Le Concert Spirituel
Herve Nique (director)
Recorded April 2019 at Arsenal Cite de Musique-Metz, France
ALPHA CLASSICS ALPHA973 2CDs 

Available from Amazon.

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