by Jean-Baptiste Lully
May 16, 2009
Photo: Amitava Sarkar
Trucks don't usually drive through operas, even in Texas. All that changed during a recent performance of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Armide by Mercury Baroque.
Mercury Baroque, a small but well established orchestra based in Houston, specializes in presenting Baroque music played on period instruments, in both traditional and casual settings. Re-imagining Baroque music also plays a large part of their mission. To give Lully's 1686 lyric tragedy, Armide, a fresh spin, Mercury Baroque's artistic director Antoine Plante enlisted French director Pascal Rambert, known for his boundary-pushing work in theater.
Armide's story derives from 17th century Italian poet Torquato Tasso's work Gerusalemme Liberata, which concerns wars between Muslims and Christians. The story captivated many an opera composer, including Handel, Haydn and Rossini. Rambert, riffing off the timeliness of the subject, set his Armide in the “now,” as in today's headlines of torture, religious wars, and the harsh glare of interrogation. For the most part, the opera took place under florescent work lights on an industrial landscape of a bare bones stage. Rambert used a tribe of non-trained camouflage-wearing dancers (with the exception of performer/dance captain Jon Stronks) as people, and they did a good job of not trying to act like dancers. Live camera work conjured a pressured atmosphere of surveillance and transparency. When the back wall lifted to reveal a sleek black Chevy Silverado truck driven by Haine or Hate and stuffed with an army hauling semi-automatic weapons, we knew we were not in 17th anymore. Other odd theatrics included a slow motion golf game complete with a golf cart and series of laptops on work tables that the performers played with during the show. Houston-based artists Frederique de Montblanc (installation assistant) and Jeremy Choate (lighting assistant) collaborated on the visuals.
Rambert's brand of anti-theater has its charm here, but it's nothing new. (For a while, so many people were doing this in Houston, I was getting to know the back wall at the Cullen Theatre a little too well.) But to be fair, for 17th century opera, maybe it is, especially for the Mercury Baroque crowd. And it has its drawbacks, like eye strain from the florescent lights and the visual distractions from all the backstage people wandering around.
Whether Rascal's contribution amused or annoyed doesn't so much matter because in the end the music took center stage. Isabelle Cals' tough as nails Armide possessed a vocal power and command of the stage. Cals' powerhouse performance contained an authority that anchored the show. Zachary Wilder made a convincing Renaud, Armide's captive then true love. Beau Gibson, an Houston Grand Opera Studio alum, probably has never made an entrance like this before, as in driving the aforementioned truck on stage, but he handled it well, and lived up to the drama of the part, sunglasses and all. Tyler Duncan, Lauren Snouffer and Sarah Mesko all gave strong performances. The chorus, under the direction of Albert LeDoux, sounded terrific and melded well with the “people.” The Mercury Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Plante, delivered a crisp and solid performance.
Sure it's fun to have trucks make a rare appearance in French opera, but it's the music I will remember here. As far as bringing Baroque music into the light of the present—mission accomplished.