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The Cruelty of Armide's Beauty

Love ruins a woman’s power base. In the baroque opera Armide composed by Willibald Gluck and based on Philippe Quinault’s libretto, Maryland Opera Studio and University of Maryland School of Music director Leon Major has taken this timeless theme to the theatrical bank by updating this work set during the era of the Crusades in the year 1099. Major does this through minimalist sets


Armide (Adria McCulloch) circles the captured Renaud (Eric Sampson)
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

and well-tailored costumes. The Dresser enthusiastically applauds the sexy, familiar-to-today costumes by Martha Mann that include Armide’s laced-up-the-front-and-back bodice that presented her breasts as if they were ripe fruit, Armide’s red silk robe that slips from her milky shoulder to reveal a lacy bra, and the buttery, leather-looking pants that many of the men characters and La Haine (Hate) wear.


Models of the scant clothing and undergarments of the American retail chain Victoria’s Secret pale against Major’s casting of Adria McCuloch as Armide, the sorceress who falls in love with an enemy leader. Not only can McCuloch ably interpret the lush baroque music, but she also pulls eyes out of their sockets with her gorgeous body made more so by Mann’s costumes. Major plays up what Hidraot, Armide’s magician uncle, calls the “cruelty of Armide’s beauty” by first presenting Armide with her laced-up back turned to the audience. When she turns, jaws drop and eyes pop.


The magician Hidraot (Darren Perry) convinces Armide (Adria McCulloch)
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver


The two-hour opera divided into five acts and 23 scenes develops the story of Armide vowing to vanquish Renaud, the leader of the Crusades. Immediately, she tells her friends Phénice and Sidonie that she has had a nightmare that predicts she will fall under the charm of Renaud and that he will end up killing her. Added to this augury is her uncle’s wish that she marry and produce heirs. When her uncle’s army captures Renaud, Armide asserts she will kill Renaud. However, as she wields the knife over the sleeping Renaud, she realizes that her attraction to him is so strong that she cannot kill him. Even when she evokes La Haine to help her, she still cannot end his life.


La Haine (Tara McCredie) guides the hand of Armide (Adria McCulloch)
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

Thus Renaud’s comrades Artémidore and Ubalde are given time to rescue Renaud, which isn’t easy because Armide’s spell is strong. The opera closes with Armide cursing her love for Renaud and knowing she will die without his love.


While Adria McCuloch April 20, 2006, performance as Armide is world class, performances by Eric Sampson as Renaud, Tara McCredie as La Haine, Alexandra Christoforakis as Phénice and Mélisse, and Stacey Mastrian as Sidonie and Lucinde are accomplished. The Dresser found the performances of Gran Wilson as Artémidore and Michael Mentzel as Ubalde somewhat odd as if they were trying to assert themselves both in their singing and acting as commedia dell'arte characters, but could not quite fit themselves into that style. The Dresser thinks Renaud’s saviors could actually go more to the comic side with good results.

Opera Lafayette Orchestra under the passionate conducting of Ryan Corrick Brown added to the emotional mother lode of Major’s well-considered production. Brown’s period instrument ensemble is dedicated to performances of 17th and 18th century operas and they specialize in the French repertoire. Often the Opera Lafayette Orchestra collaborates with The New York Baroque Dance Company.

The Dresser was hoping that this dance company, known as the leading baroque dance troupe in the United States, would be performing in this production of Armide. Not so and the dancing in Major’s Armide was the weakest part of the production. The Maryland Opera Studio Chorus participated in some of the dance numbers, meaning that their performance was meant only to be social dance and taken in that context. However, the official four dancers known individually as coryphée, which means a ballet dancer who ranks above a member of the corps de ballet and below a soloist and who performs in small ensembles, should have created more excitement. Perhaps the squarish white masks that they wore inhibited their ability to move with more control and fluidity. Overall what bothered the Dresser most was the chaotic flapping of banners, ribbons, and bolts of cloth (how else does one effect a river?) in the dance sequences.


About the subject of women’s power base, the Dresser offers this poem by Grace Cavalieri from her poetry collection What I Would Do for Love: Poems in the Voice of Mary Wollstonecraft. This set of poems is the basis for Cavalieri’s play Hyena in Petticoats. Upon publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft ‘s 1792 book outlining the case for women's emancipation, Wollstonecraft was called a “hyena in petticoats.''


I wanted rest from running, from asking for love,
Bitter lips tasted, lips lost,
Breaking teeth into my mouth.

I wanted, before the sun came up,
To pray: Thank You for
The day, for Nature advancing its tender mercies.

I wanted a crescendo of women
Saying: There is enough for all…
We will walk through the dark of this house.
Words will seep through the walls. We are able.
There is a light on the hill we can walk through.

Women everywhere are aching.

I would preach a ballad from the roof,
Sing to mermaids and children,
Cross limbs with scholars,
Leave footprints in the snow,
Write the weeks of our history,
Bring our pieces together. That is what I wanted.

Why these crowds rising in clusters against me,
This sun setting in its sky sending
A bloody cloth as a letter of love.

by Grace Cavalieri
from What I Would Do for Love:
Poems in the Voice of Mary Wollstonecraft


Comments (5)

It is not only that I have watched Karren's rise as a writer; it is not only that I have seen her effect upon our culture; it is not only the humility with which I see a poem of my own used in this review----it is all this and more. Karren Alenier is one of the leading women of our time in history changing the arts, describing them, and creating a context that makes sense ...one that could only come from someone who was a creator first, and then - next - became a reviewer of others' creations.

T. Sichore:

So she quoted a poem of yours - therefore all that she says is oracular and she will go down in history for her genius in describing the arts and "creating a context that makes sense".

I don't think so dearie.


I liked it...but i wish to know if this whole opera is based on a true story or is it just a fictitious one? Please do reply and help me solve this query...if its true can you please forward me some other facts about this character Armide and also Rienaud. It would be a great help if you so reply.
Thankin you

The Story of Armide and Renaud is based on a section of Gerusalemme liberata, a popular epic poem by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso which uses the story of the capture of Jerusalem by Christians during the First Crusade (1096-99) as the starting point for a tale of heroism, villainy, war, star-crossed lovers, sorcery, bad temper, warrior maidens, and eventual total victory by the forces of good. Armide is a sorceress and Renaud is a crusader.

Michael Iscenko:

I am no fan of modern costume on 18th century opera but I really liked La Haine! She was really quite impressive on the stage.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 21, 2007 4:32 PM.

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