“We’re so inflexible about sexuality now. As 21st-century people we think we are the ones who are enlightened. But we forget that the 19th century was reaction against the sexual licence of the century before. There is a fluidity about sexuality that you find in the 17th and 18th centuries that I think is still not matched to this day.”
Opera Atelier’s artistic director Marshall Pynkoski is discussing Jean-Baptiste Lully, composer of the 1686 opera Armide opening Opera Atelier’s 20th anniversary season on Sat, Nov 5. A known sodomite, Lully was also the married father of 10.
Lully rose to become head of the Académie Royale de Musique, secrétaire du roi and surintendant to King Louis XIV. His unique position afforded him certain privileges, among which was the right to flaunt his romantic relationship with his page, Brunet. “There were different rules for where you stood socially,” says Pynkoski. “Is it any different now? The king’s brother was the most famous sodomite at court.
“Lully was the ultimate courtier,” says Pynkoski. “He understood how the world worked at court, and that power operates the same way.” A shrewd and ruthless businessman, Lully held the patents for his own compositions, as well as sole rights to collaborations with Molière, among others. He invented the French overture, upgraded the ballet corps’ role in opera to integrate dance into the actual storytelling and sidelined the Italian model of opera by exchanging the familiar alternating arias and recitatives with a hybrid of continuous music that better suited both the story’s dramatic momentum and the cadence of the French language.
His collaborations with librettist Quinault produced operas in a new form called the tragédie lyrique, which became a truly distinct French national opera. For its North American premiere of Armide, Opera Atelier provides a definitive snapshot of the tragédie lyrique. The story is essentially the struggle between love and hate.
The Muslim sorceress/warrior princess Armide (mezzo Stephanie Novacek) is a mystical virgin who inspires desire in everybody who sees her. In battle, warriors drop their swords and are mesmerized, helpless with desire for her. She has just won a great victory over the invading crusaders, amongst whom only the Christian knight Renaud (tenor Colin Ainsworth) has resisted her overwhelming power, since he too, is a mystical virgin of sorts. Mutually attracted and repulsed, the two become locked in a spiritual and sexual stalemate.
“They both lose,” says Pynkoski, “and in the most painful way, they both win, in that they will never be able to look at their traditional enemies in the same way…. They both know that the person, the race, the religion that they have been taught to believe is evil and perverted… [when] reduced to a person, suddenly the issues disappear and they are left with nothing but desire for one another.”
Armide confesses her love to Renaud while he is asleep.
“Her famous recit over the sleeping Renaud — it’s a minute and a half long — she can’t move, she doesn’t know why. Then she describes her fear, finally she finishes the scene by lying to herself. To kill this man is too easy, she thinks. I’ll humiliate him by taking him as a lover. But the truth is she can’t bear not to take him as a lover.” This psychological meltdown is the most famous moment in French classical theatre.
Opera Atelier presents 17th- and 18th-century opera in the language it was written, with period costumes and plot intact. So Armide was a special challenge for longstanding design team of Gerard Gauci and Dora Rust d’Eye.
“The original costumes and set design for Armide exist,” says Pynkoski, “and they are incredibly beautiful. But there are certain images that resonate for us in a different way today. I have enormous problems with turbans and togas. Nothing’s wrong with them inherently. But these beautiful costume pieces were invested with a comic element. We just didn’t need that sort of thing working against us the moment the curtain goes up. So the question becomes, what is exotic?”
For Opera Atelier, the answer is to refract the impression of oriental exoticism through a French lens. The result is a riot of colour and elegance, calligraphic text and pattern, with Muslim and Christian elements juxtaposed in layers.
“It’s a language that’s not on our radar. This crazy riot of colour — mustard yellow with purple and lime green — it knocks your eyes out.”