Ensemble OrQuesta Baroque
Grimeborn. Arcola Theatre. 9 August 2017
As the deliberately chosen name suggests, Grimeborn is not Glyndebourne, its location in the Arcola Theatre, a converted textile factory in Dalston, East London, being just one of the differences. Founded in 2007, the Grimborn opera festival focuses on new operas and experimental productions of more established repertoire. The limited space and budget in comparison to its more glamorous inspiration is one of its main strengths, as it forces directors, singers and instrumentalists to rethink basic opera practice. One key factor for the singers is that, rather like the more glamorous Iford Opera season, the singers are performing within a few feet of the audience, sitting on three sides of the central stage area.
Lully’s Armide was created and first performed for the Paris Opera at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in 1686, and was revived several times in the following decades. It was written and performed on a grand scale, with complex staging and scenery directions. So translating it to a small black-box theatre in Dalston takes some imagination. This production, by Ensemble OrQuesta Baroque directed by Marcio da Silva, used the simplest possible set, with a central cloth-covered dias, two chairs, and a candelabra. Rather than the large and colourful orchestra that Lully intended (which would have included a rich pallet of woodwind instruments), there was one violin, two violas, gamba, cello, archlute, and harpsichord all perched rather precariously on a raised platform to one side of the stage area which, incidentally, seemed to have no visible means of access.
The opera is set during the Crusades, although there was nothing to suggest that in the setting or costumes, which seemed to be randomly selected from the all-purpose generic opera wardrobe. Indeed, dressing Armide’s father, the King of Damascus, as a medieval monk rather confused the sparring sides of the Crusades. Practically all the cast had rather odd smudges of make-up patterns around their eyes, the relevance of which escaped me. The virginal but seductive princess and sorceress Armide has captured the enemy knight Renaud, who is similarly virginal, but in a more mystical way. As vengeance turns to thoughts of love just as she is about to kill him, Armide puts a spell on Renaud so that he will fall in love with her, which he does. The complications of desire are explored as the story develops.
French Baroque opera is a very particular genre in the musical and operatic realm, and is difficult to bring off even under the best circumstances. But this was a brave attempt that, within its restrictions and the remit of Grimeborn, worked well. Musically there were, of course, enormous compromises, but my main query about this performance was the degree to which the youngish singers had really absorbed the style of French Baroque singing. A key issue was that they practically all suffered from excessive and uncontrolled vibrato which in French Baroque music, with its delicate and complex range of ornaments, is usually a fatal flaw. Guy Withers, as Renaud, had a pleasant high tenor voice which, although not quite the distinctive haute-contre timbre, was pretty close to it. He also was one of the very few singers who could manage a proper trill, so important in all Baroque music, but particularly French. Rosemary Carlton-Willis in the title role was a very accomplished actress portraying the complex range of emotions well. She also managed a couple of good trills, despite a rather strong vibrato. Other singers that I liked from this cast were Ashley Adams, Phénice, Helen May, La Glorie/Mélisse, John Holland-Avery, Ubalde, and Matthew Morgan stepping aside from conducting to sing the role of Un Amant from on high. Director Marcio da Silva also sang as a red-clad La Haine (Hate) and an evil spirit. Four of the roles had split casts that didn’t always coincide, so rehearsing all the possible permutations must have been an added complication.
Just as Grimeborn isn’t Glyndebourne, this Armide wasn’t Lully’s Armide, but it was an effective reduction of Lully’s musical ideas into a compact form, well suited to the space and audience. As it happens, and perhaps unfortunately, I am also in the process of reviewing a full-blown performance on CD from Les Talens Lyriques – if you want to hear Lully and Lully probably intended, do try this.