If you fancy being entertained like a French king, head to Grimeborn for Lully’s Armide. Lully’s artistic monopoly over French opera lasted well beyond his death (thanks to some dastardly patenting, as the excellent programme notes explain): he took full advantage of his pre-eminent position musically, as well as financially, creating opera for Louis XIV of rapturous, languorous beauty, and this is one of his finest works, though poignantly one the king refused to see after a scandal drove Lully from Versailles. An anguished, passionate story, it depicts the doomed love of the proud Muslim warrior princess Armide (a beautifully acted Rosemary Carlton-Willis) for the Christian knight Renaud (sweet-toned tenor and capable actor Guy Withers), who alone among men is impervious to her charms, his virtue and valour equally unassailable. Armide, who is also a sorceress, conjures demons from Hell to enslave Renaud to her will with false desire, but finds she cannot master her own infatuation, and worse, finds she has no genuine will to do so. When her enchantments are eventually broken, and Renaud escapes with his heart intact, Armide’s despair and fury cause her to destroy her own palace, in the vain hope that her unrequited passion will also be buried with it.
Directing both stage and music is talented Brazilian baritone Marcio da Silva, who also plays an erotically charged La Haine (the demon of hate, resplendent in a blood-red suit), gives luscious strength to choruses with his sumptuously smooth, tenderly expressive voice, and represents a scattering of other characters, some silent. This is a production whose cast all work hard, often doubling roles, which can become disorientating; even our conductor (Matthew Morgan) breaks into song in the final act, standing on the platform above the main Arcola stage with his small band of skilled musicians (harpsichord and baroque guitar adding credible period dimensions to the warm, highly wrought score, sung in French with English surtitles projected on three sides of the theatre).
The set is simple, with a red silken dais in the centre of the stage used alternately as the pedestal of a throne, a bed, or a meadow where knights wander to meet temptation. Long candelabra at the end of this dais hold the candles which come to represent Armide’s spells, ignited and snuffed out at key points in the action, and two chairs compose the rest of our scenery. Costumes are contemporary but timeless, with Armide and her handmaidens dressed in long, metallic evening gowns recalling classical drapery and an idea of burnished armour, while Hell is a cocktail party, judging from the female demons’ glittery dresses. Knights and prisoners appear variously in black, or white, shirts and trousers; I couldn’t quite trace the narrative logic of the colour changes here, nor understand the reasoning behind the widespread huge, dark and smudgy eye makeup, and this production doesn’t altogether live up to the high expectations it creates. Da Silva’s vision is ambitious, and ought to work brilliantly; his lean, minimalist concept is ideal for this space, and despite lifting the instrumentalists up high and facing the conductor away from the singers, timing only rarely gets hazy. The music is often beautiful, with magical unaccompanied choruses, a generally capable, passionate central performance from Carlton-Willis as Armide, and charismatic contributions from da Silva throughout; but poorer, less confident acting and singing in the smaller roles tend to puncture our conviction just when we need it most.
Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 12 August
Rating: 3 stars