When Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Armide opens, the composer employs sweet major keys for women’s talk of love, and ominous minors when their topic changes to war. But the title character is unbound by such convention; when she sings of romance, it’s through darkened melodies. For her love will be another kind of war, no less because her true love—the crusader Renaud—is a warrior and her enemy. “How sweet it would be to bind him in chains,” she sings. I bet!
Love is slavery in Gluck’s cynical and astonishingly good opera, now too briefly in a superb semi-staging, a co-production between Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera. (The first performance was last night; the second and last is Saturday.) Armide, a sorceress who controls the dark powers of Hell—the 17th century’s vision of a typical woman?—is reluctant to marry because it means the loss of her independence. Similarly, Renaud prides himself on his freedom from love, a liberty of which that wicked witch robs him with a spell, after she spares his life, asking, “is it not enough if love punishes him?”
Armide is a precursor to Carmen—a fiercely independent woman and spell-caster who bewitches and ruins men, though Armide’s plan backfires. It will end ignobly for her; she will beg on her knees to be taken as a slave before Renaud abandons her instead. (Better to get a knife to the gut, girl, and go out with dignity.) But, perhaps more interestingly, the opera premiered in 1777, while the American Revolution was the talk of France. So all its talk of helping to liberate a land controlled by tyrants, and its characters fears of losing their liberty, all sounds very supportive of the fledgling United States (even if Gluck lifted Philippe Quinault’s libretto from Lully’s Armide, written more than 100 years earlier!)
Love is political here, but also just love—and Quinault and Gluck want nothing to do with it. It’s presented as enslaving, shaming, disgraceful, clouding, corrupting, punishing, and pernicious—intoxicating, but hollow. And dangerous. In the end, Renaud chooses glory over women, duty over love, and abandons Armide, who spits at him sadly, “barbarian! Are you content?” before collapsing to the stage. (Emalie Savoy’s performance is not only intensely musical, it’s intensely dramatic, the kind of thing that’ll set classical-music circles vibrating with so much buzz. All of the cast’s strong young voices sound illustrious in the school’s relatively intimate Peter Jay Sharp theater.) Earlier, though, even Armide had cast off love, if only for a moment. “My art requires solitude,” she says, referring to her ability to commune with dark spirits. As if the world needs its good and talented people—like a certain librettist, perhaps, hm?—to do more with their lives than indulge the vanities of love.
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