Review: The Prison of our Perceptions. Gluck’s “Armide” at Vienna Staatsoper (2016)

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[Negotiating attraction: Gaëlle Arquez (Armide) and Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Renaud) in Gluck’s “Armide”, Vienna/Staatsoper 2016. – Photo Credit: Michael Pöhn/Wiener Staatsoper]

What is it that draws us to a person? To what degree is gender a construction? Where do we end and where does the other person begin, and is there a space of overlap in which we can truly see each other?

The concept of Ivan Alexrandre’s staging poses very good questions, yet fails to deliver on them.

The idea, in a nutshell: Armide is a young male soldier in drag, specifically trained to distract, seduce and disable the enemy crusaders through the powers of attraction.

Armide – that is his problem – then actually falls for Renaud, who perhaps never realizes that Armide is, in fact, not what s/he seems, and Armide furthermore has the problem to deal with their affections in a highly homoscial, but just as homophobic military setting.

For the first part, this works out well: Arquez’s Armide is moving in and out of her female garb, rips off her flowing wig at some point to reveal short hair, and swaggers away to the back of the stage: what are male, what female patterns, and how do we come to read them as such?

Armide is fitted with a bare-chest and a sixpack, though the headdress he wears with it looks like Cencic just staged Eliogabalo (which I would watch in a heartbeat), and the feathers to frame the shoulder seams of the fake appollinic torso were unnecessary overkill. The difficulty of Armide’s balancing between genders, and between gendered affections, is illustrated by the corps of the Vienna Ballettakademie, who play her trainee Mata Hari colleagues, featuring the same long-sleeved yellowish dress with a train, and slipping in and out of codified gender movements.

To stage the character of Armide as a consciously gendered performance, and to go from there to question gendered movements at large, and through dancers who literally earn their living by exhibiting a very specific  and highly codified set of gendered movements?  A fabulous idea. And what an evening it could have been, had the production focused more on the interpersonal turmoil, and less on fancy set moves, stomping militia displays, and gay fetish bingo.

Also, in part two – which Armide and Renaud spend largely in and around a bed – the concept seems to get afraid of its own courage and lets Armide’s male identity fall completely to the wayside: we only see the woman any longer, with no more physical reference to the warrior who displayed his bare chest before the intermission: we only get the dress, the flowing locks, nothing that could send heteronormativity into a tiffle.

When Renaud, feeling for Armide, finally does leave her after all and Armide breaks down, Armide does at no point pull off her wig or open her dress and confront Renaud (or, after he is gone, the audience) with his male body under the trappings of femininity, and their shared attraction despite or because of it. And that’s a cop-out.

We do get, in the end, a whirling stage and more stomping extras with huge gleaming shields, and fire and brimstone, but all that felt like a put-on effect to gloss over the fact that we didn’t get to look at the pressing question of the evening: What actually happens with Armide, and does Renaud love him back? What is the Mata Hari mask, what is the actual affection?

On the staging side, this was an annoying waste of opportunity in a production too much about stylish poses, and not enough about the emotional conflicts of the characters.

The set itself – large movable Minecraft cubes with a Rusty Industrial mod filter – is imposing, but does not relate that well to the story beyond offering many possibilities to walk up and down and back and forth and open doors. Likewise, the few allusions to Abu Ghraib  (the bound Ceberus dancer accompanying Hate, the captures soldiers tied to chairs with bags over their heads at the very beginning) were only briefly referenced and turned into something disrespectfully illustrative.

Having Armide threaten and beat enemy soldiers in her frustration about the unresponsive Renaud did not work, since the melodic line conveys deep emotional involvement, so the idea to stage her as the killer soldier in drag did not transport in the music when it comes to the ‘killer’ aspect. Also, the bit about Hidraot (Paolo Rumetz) advising Armide to take a husband is not addressed in relation to the concept – if Armide is a man who is not allowed to be in love with another man, why would he be able to look for a husband?

There is a military set-up which brings us right away into Gay Fetish Bingo (yes, we can cross if all off the list: Bare-chested dancers! Men dancing with each other! Uniforms! YMCA! Bondage! Gay male Military Ballet doing push-ups!), and into one moment of mime where it seemed a soldier who had shown attraction to another male was singled out, stripped down and hazed by others, who could barely conceal their own attraction: setting the mood for the homosocial/homophobic dualism, with testosterone push-up displays and clasped upper arms and strength-displaying jumps in stylized duels. One wonders how these soldiers treat their ‘Armide’ colleagues – there was no interaction at all that would have adressed this, just as the evening overall seems to be content to stage tableaus rather than explore the relations between the characters in the staging.

I am so over the army coat aesthetic, although the army scene did bring out the very alert, and dynamically very flexible and fine-tuned Gustav Mahler Choir – “Poursuivons jusqu’ au trèpas” was very effective and beautifully done.

The danced staging of femininity through the male corps du ballet – posed as fractions of attractions and perceptions set pareallel in different opening doors on the cube structure – has been recipient of some vitriol in the local press, most notably being dabbed a tranvestite advent calendar.

I, in turn, really liked this ballet, because it actually asked the core questions of the evening, in every of the poses that did portray not purposeful camp, but codified and naturalized femininity: In which patterns do we clad our attractions? What is gender? Into what poses do we break it down? – I did not get any vibe of camp. Rather, the employ of trained ballet dancers drew toe focus to the handling of axis (fine, the stage set made the set-up look a bit like Mother Goddamn’s Puff in Mandelay, to quote Brecht, but that is a set issue, and not one of the dancers).

In fact, the male dancers, in the enchanted garden sequences in the second part, achieve the most bewitching images of the evening, when for example there are five of them plus two female singers (absolutely Early Music affine: Hila Fahima and Olga Bezsmertna as Sidonie and Phénice, one of them with an almost boy-like, cristalline quality to her tone) and the only difference in the tableau is the cleavage, other than that, all you see is women: gender gone with the zephyr winds.

And that is a great set-up, at other points in the evening reversed by Sidonie and Phénice showing up in the black military garb with utility pants, boots and ties. If anything, the evening – at least at times – nicely manages to blur gender lines and point out how much of our perception hinges on a performance illusion: our roles, and our gender, are all interchangeable.

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[What makes a woman? The Vienna Ballettakademie in Gluck’s “Armide”, Vienna/Staatsoper 2016. – Photo Credit: Michael Pöhn/Wiener Staatsoper]

Apropos illusion: the choir is again bewitching in the loveland set-up – indeed a zephyr before Renaud even mentions it.

At contrast to that, the grand scene of Hate being called upon by Armide, who at the last moment decides she prefers to love and suffer, is absolute fire and an immense wealth of colors and affects in the pit, but finds not enough corresponding fire in Margaret Plummer, whose voice is even, but not set out for conjuring the pitfires of hell. The pit accomodated her nicely, with going off into wild fireworks (and those were the actual fireworks of the evening – not the unnecessary pyroshow in the end) only in the bits where the voice was silent.

Minkowski and his Musiciens Du Louvre, did, once more, deliver an outstanding performance, sounding fresh throughout and alert to the most minute changes in musical atmosphere. From the wild roar of the hate scene to the fragrant charm of Armide’s enchanted palace, one could not have wished for more detailed and vivid coloring.

From the very first opening bars, Les Musiciens du Louvre seem to settle into the very bone marrow of Gluckian structure and transport it out from there, carrying the evening on their backs and bows (I am beginning to have a situation when it comes to the string section!) – from the balmy-smooth entrances of the choir (I would have fallen for that alone, not Armide wiles necessary) to the verve of the timpani, it was all there. At times – as with the tenderness depicting the gentle breezes of Armide’s lair, or the hypnotic swell of strings as Armide is falling in love – there would have been no onstage action necessary. The pit is the one doing the most in personenregie on this evening.

My notes on the strong tremoli in the second part and the battuti-style build-up for Arminde’s “Sauvez-moi de l’amour” are illegible with enthusiasm. And while there is impressive singing, the evening is worth the trip for the orchestra alone.

Gaëlle Arquez sings Armide. I remember her mostly by her Idamante under Jacobs and was surprised by the size of her voice in the Staatsoper hall: it is bigger live than I would have expected, with an attractively smooth, full sound that reaches all the way to a well-projected, dark-tinged top. At times, she had to really pour in a lot of power, but I did get at no point the impression that the sound was unduly strained, or outsizing the voice. Arquez delivered on emotionally conveyed declamation just as well as on powerful ire, and I am curious to hear where she will move from here on out. One hopes that it will include more Gluck. Her differentiated acting in the first part, quoting affects and gender patterns, got unfortunately sold short in a second part that left the description of gender disambiguition entirey to Arquez’s vocal qualities – which do move beyond such limits – and the commentary of the ballet.

The Renaud of Stanislas de Barbeyrac likewise had to put all his might behind his phrases at times, but he does not seem out of his depth nor exhausted by it. And it is also this physical dedication that makes his portrait convincing: vocally, and also scenically. Within the second part, he spends an hour in nothing more but a pair of boxers and it does not turn into another round of Gay Festish Bingo because Barbeyrac uses the set-up to explore Renaud’s languidness and hesitation rather than his built. When he sits on the bed, hugging Armide’s Mata Hari dress to himself, more interesting questions rise up with the image: Who is Armide? Whom does Renaud love? What does that make him, and do we need a name to it? Is the only thing that counts the breathing space between the You and the I, and where does that border run?

In a poignant bit of pantomine, a boy dancer in a little crusader suit comes in fighting, and then ends up putting on a miniature version of Armide’s dress, twirlign around and welcomed with open arms by the other Mata Hari trainees: Is this Renaud and Armide being one and the same, in a Tristanesque symbiosis? Is this Armide becoming who he is, or is it Renaud sharing this space?

And, one final time, the ballet manages to deliver striking imagery to the impassioned pleas of Armide, and to Renaud’s bewildered love: when, above the sung performance of love, on the minecraft structure, the ballet dancers re-enact eight variations of Armide’s hopeless love: one dancer in the Armide dress ringing with another one, bare-chested and in pants, female against male, and losing to him, only to have the winner don an Armide dress themselves and have them fight with the next version of Renaud who steps up, only to lose again, and again, with the defeated and discarded Armides piling up to the left: gender blending into supposed opposites at will, and turning into a hopeless fight as soon as fixated into a position?

Yet instead of delivering on that visually poignant question, the evening ends with more war-stomping extras, obscuring the suffering Armide with their shields as if this were Salome and not Gluck, to then give us completely uncalled-for fireworks and stage fog and another circling of the set set that take the performance disappointingly away from the issues it has managed to touch.

A great evening?

Musically, it was. Scenically, it could have been.

1 thought on “Review: The Prison of our Perceptions. Gluck’s “Armide” at Vienna Staatsoper (2016)”

  1. A great evening? A great review. Engaged, alert, full of ideas. The lasting record of a significant production – and the closest I expect to get, to seeing that. So many thanks.

    Like

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