Opera Atelier: The Spectacle of Armide

Olivier LaQuerre as Chevalier Ubalde
Photo by Bruce Zinger
Opera Atelier's production of Armide, a tragédie en musique, is, in my view, a spectacle worthy of Versailles. First performed in Paris at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal on February 15, 1686, with scenery by Bérain, the Toronto-based Opera Atelier has layered the Middle Eastern aesthetic of the story over a Baroque sensibility, creating a feast for the senses. Captivating from start to finish, this production opens tonight in Toronto and runs until April 21, 2012. In May, the company takes Armide to Versailles, followed by a summer run at The Glimmerglass Festival in New York. 

Set during the time of the First Crusades, the story centers around the Muslim warrior princess Armide who captures the Christian knight Renaud with her magic spells. Instead of killing him, she falls in love with him and casts a spell to make him love her in return. Conflicted by her emotions, she calls on the Goddess of Hate to release her love for Renaud, but instead is condemned to eternal love. Renaud's spell is broken by fellow soldiers and he escapes from Armide. Even though he declares his love to an unconscious Armide, he abandons her. Tormented and despairing, Armide destroys everything within her reach, except for her love for Renaud. 

The interplay of cultures and time periods within this complex story has been masterfully handled by set designer Gerard Gauci (who also happens to be one of my favourite artists). Taking inspiration from the rich jewel tones, complex patterns and burnished gold elements of Persian miniatures, the set creates the illusion of courtly splendour for a complex story defined by passion. Playful use of scrims during the dream sequences adds another dimension of temporality to the production. 

Jake Rennie as Love, Peggy Kriha Dye as Armide
Photo by Bruce Zinger
The costumes highlight the spectacle of passion on stage and create the illusion of courtly splendour. The female characters and dancers are dressed in beautiful gowns of rich jewel tones lavishly decorated with gold trim. The male characters don velvet breeches and jerkins ornamented with "jewels" which catch the light and sparkle with vibrancy. In one scene, male dancers wear skirt panels that whip around their bodies as they twirl, highlighting the power of their energetic movement. Costumes are built as separates, allowing for multiple changes of look as the characters add or remove layers. And the wings of Love (shown above) are truly god-like in their exquisite other-worldly beauty. 

After attending a dress rehearsal preview of this production earlier this week, I believe that Opera Atelier's production of Armide is an opera that will appeal to both seasoned opera goers and opera "virgins". The lavish costumes and sets, the use of dance to develop and enhance the story and the passion and power conveyed on stage by the performers, all come together to create an enchanted spectacle. This is an opera worthy of Versailles. 

Tickets to Armide (April 14-21) are on sale at ticketmaster.ca. Tickets for the Glimmerglass Festival are available here 

Photos provided courtesy of Opera Atelier and are subject to copyright. 
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