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Gluck's 'Armide' casts spell at Juilliard

Take one neglected masterpiece, stir in a gifted bunch of young singers, add an attentive conductor and a savvy director.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Take one neglected masterpiece, stir in a gifted bunch of young singers, add an attentive conductor and a savvy director.

Result? The splendid semi-staged production of Gluck's "Armide" that opened at The Juilliard School on Wednesday night in collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

The opera, which premiered in Paris in 1777, is based on a 16th-century romantic epic by the Italian poet Tasso that tells of the sorceress Armide's reluctant infatuation with the crusading knight Renaud. Gluck was hardly alone in finding inspiration in this tale: Dozens of other composers from Rossini to Dvorak based operas or ballets on the same material.

Gluck lifted a libretto that had already been set by Jean-Baptiste Lully 90 years earlier and created a wondrous new score that balances classical restraint with a turbulence reflecting the passions of the characters.

The title role is a long and daunting one, requiring a soprano who can switch from fiery outbursts one moment to sensuous endearments the next. Emalie Savoy, a tall, glamorous figure costumed in a tight-fitting red dress, has a bright, penetrating voice and often sounded imposing. At times, however, especially toward the end, her tone turned shrill at the top.

As Renaud, David Portillo displayed such a sweet, free-and-easy light tenor sound that one wished Gluck had given him more to sing.

Besides the two leading characters, there are several crucial supporting roles — a fact that made the performance a fine showcase for the prodigious array of talent.

Though she appears in only one scene, mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum came close to stealing the show as the spirit of Hatred. Summoned by Armide to exorcise her love for Renaud, she is stopped midway through the ceremony when the sorceress has a change of heart. Hatred scornfully departs, predicting that Armide will be abandoned. Tatum brought this demon to life with bold, full-bodied vocalism and an electrifying stage presence.

Others worthy of note include soprano Devon Guthrie and mezzo Wallis Giunta as Armide's confidantes; baritone Alexander Hajek as her uncle, Hidraot; soprano Deanna Breiwick as a shepherdess; and tenor Noah Baetge and baritone Luthando Qave as knights who come to rescue Renaud and are nearly ensnared by Armide's demons.

Conductor Jane Glover led the orchestra in a stylish performance of the score, while keeping a helpful eye on the singers. Veteran stage director Fabrizio Melano, aided by Kate Ashton's lighting designs, worked wonders with a virtually bare stage, getting his young performers to bring their characters to life with subtle movements and gestures.

For whatever reasons, "Armide" has never achieved the popularity of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" or "Iphigenie en Tauride." The Met last performed it almost exactly 100 years ago — with a cast that starred tenor Enrico Caruso as Renaud and soprano Olive Fremstad in the title role.

Maybe it's due for a revival. Meanwhile, this production has one more performance, Saturday night.