URBANA – Faculty members in three departments of the University of Illinois College of Fine and Applied Arts are collaborating to present the obscure, seldom-heard French Baroque opera "Armide."
The late-life masterpiece by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) opens Thursday in the Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center, with nods to both Baroque-era staging, gesture and dance and contemporary technology.
It was early music performer/advocate and UI music Professor Charlotte Mattax's idea to present the opera and to work on it with theater Professor James Zager and Department of Dance faculty member Philip Johnston. She has worked with them before, on Purcell's "The Fairy Queen" in 2005 and Monteverdi's "Poppea" in 2006.
This is the first time the UI Opera Program is presenting "Armide," once a staple of the French operatic stage but relatively unknown in the United States. A modern edition of the opera, first presented in 1686, was only recently published; one of the first U.S. productions took place last year as a collaborative project between Opera Lafayette of Washington, D.C., and the University of Maryland Opera Studio.
"I'm thrilled with the way it's come together here," Mattax said before a rehearsal Tuesday night. "The Baroque sets will be projected on the back wall, and James has the dancers doing Baroque gestures, and Philip has choreographed Baroque dances."
From one of the harpsichordists, Mattax will conduct a small group of musicians who will play, at Baroque pitch, period instruments, among them two harpsichords, a recorder and a bamba.
The 16-member chorus, directed by Chester L. Alwes, functions like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. The onstage singers play multiple roles so that the production could economize on costumes.
"They're very lavish costumes, and the characters will be manifested through masks," Mattax said.
The libretto by Philippe Quinault is based on the Renaissance poem "Gerusalemme liberata" by Torquato Tasso. The opera, a lyric tragedy, tells the story of sorceress/warrior princess Armide, sung by Ingrid Kammin, who is conflicted by her hatred and attraction for the Crusade knight Renaud, played by Kyle Pollio.
Upon first seeing him, she is ready to kill him. But she finds him so attractive that she puts a spell on him to fall in love with her. Later, the spell is broken, and Renaud falls out of love with Armide, yet still has great empathy for her anguish.
Mattax said the opera has all the human traits that we deal with today. And though it's a highly stylized and rarefied form, it is not as remote as people would think, she said.
The gestures that Zager has taught cast members will further explain the action. His "bible" has been "The Art of Gesture – the Principles and Practices of 18th-Century Acting," by Dean Barnett. The gestures are based on 17th-century acting; "Armide" was first produced in 1686.
The gestures become a sort of visual, almost like sign language, Zager said. "Even without the supertitles, you're able to listen and follow the action. It ties in with Baroque dance and music; in some ways, it's almost balletic." The opera will be sung in French, with English supertitles.
Zager also is following strict Baroque-era staging rules, among them placing the most powerful character at stage right. A number of times, Armide takes center stage, and she is the only mortal character who will step up on a platform that is reserved for the gods.
Johnston said Baroque dance preceded what we now know as classical ballet.
"It's actually quite difficult to execute well because of the turnout" of legs, he said. "There are no high legs to do something too energetic or flamboyant. It's wonderful to see these dances integrated into 'Armide,' to find Charlotte and James putting this whole thing together."
Besides Kammin and Pollio, other cast members are Jong Hun Cha, Lori Fisher, Eun Sun Kuk, Ryan Mercer, Saul M. Nache, Ricardo Sepúlveda and William Thompson. The dancers are Jennifer Allen, Rebecca Crystal, Esteban Donoso, Claudio Ribeiro, Elizabeth Stabb and Gray Sutton.
"Armide" is presented with a prologue and in five acts. Mattax estimates it will run just over two hours.