This 'Armide' Proves to Be a Choice Blend

Adria McCulloch in the title role of Gluck's tale about a sorceress's love for an enemy soldier.
Adria McCulloch in the title role of Gluck's tale about a sorceress's love for an enemy soldier. (By Cory Weaver)
Saturday, April 21, 2007

Baroque instruments, romantic opera singers and a modern production don't belong together. Yet, at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Thursday evening, they managed to blend for an effective and relevant performance. With Gluck's "Armide," the University of Maryland Opera Studio and the Opera Lafayette Orchestra acted against tradition and trend -- but not the opera itself.

The story of a powerful sorceress's love for an enemy Crusader, "Armide's" simplicity and poignancy have unmistakable appeal. The straightforward plot and the free-form nature of Gluck's music were surprisingly conducive to a modern production. A stark stage dominated by black corsets and red lighting ensured a focus on the music. Director Leon Major demonstrated an ingenious understanding of visual imagery, as each staging choice and prop reflected the characters' development. A larger-than-life shadow of Armide, in contrast with the real, all-too-human version, was especially compelling.

Adria McCulloch was a world-class Armide. Her rich soprano is not an intuitive choice for early music, but it served Gluck's score.

As Renaud, tenor Eric Sampson had some difficulties with intonation and nasality but showed promise. In the supporting roles of Armide's confidantes and others, Stacey Mastrian contributed a sweet, shimmering soprano and Alexandra Christoforakis a voluptuous, if slightly wobbly, mezzo-soprano. As La Haine, mezzo-soprano Tara McCredie sang with appropriate coldness, albeit some strain. Baritone Darren Perry was a strong Hidraot; one wished he had more music. As Ubalde and Le Chevalier Danois, Michael Mentzel and Gran Wilson brought the necessary vigor to their roles.

The orchestra is central to the development of "Armide." Warring drives toward glory and love, exemplified by galloping battle rhythms and pastoral melodies, define the title character and her beloved Renaud. The clarity of expression and articulation attained by the Opera Lafayette Orchestra under conductor Ryan Corrick Brown was crucial to the production's success.

For years, period instruments were relegated to museums, and interpretations of baroque operas have often treated the works as untouchable relics. The Maryland Opera Studio and Opera Lafayette prove with their production that a modern take can be at least as exciting as a traditional one. The opera will be repeated today at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 3 p.m.

-- Ronni Reich

© 2007 The Washington Post Company