Over the years to 2019 Halifax Summer Opera Festival evolved into an exciting annual August celebration with three double-cast fully staged operas. The global pandemic, sadly, put that tradition on hold until this year, with the production of one single rarely performed opera Armide: a baroque opera with a correspondingly intricate plot. One might have doubted the relevance of an opera composed in 1777 by Gluck, with a libretto based on a 1575 poem but the performance was elating and the enchantment much needed both on and off stage. The singers, mostly students or recent graduates of Vocal Performance university programs, attend from everywhere in Canada, the USA, Mexico and France. They rehearsed for three weeks taking daily rapid tests, sometimes wearing masks or on zoom and nevertheless produced a magical show.
The production was double-cast and although it was the same production, same staging, some of the same singers and the same orchestra—each cast produced a spectacularly different outcome. On August 13, Armide was performed by Megan Cullen, a dramatic soprano with an enormous voice, who clearly controlled the full range of her vocal power to suit the capacity of the hall. Her Armide was an imperious warrior, commanding and unbreakable. Tenor Colin Frotten as Renaud in both casts was superbly and completely diminished by the spells and the force of Megan Cullen’s Armide. Released from the spell, Renaud became the haughty, glory-seeking hero he had been before meeting Armide. His character changed, but his voice was constant.
On August 14, lyric soprano Agnès Ménard was a much more vulnerable Armide, seductive and conflicted. Both Armides wanted Renaud to love them without magic spells but Menard projected greater turmoil at his rejection. Her acting was as exquisite as her voice.
Tenor Alan Krishna, in both casts, was Artemidore as well as the Danish Knight. Along with MarKo Hubert, as Ubalde, they interjected beautifully sung and well-timed comic relief. Emma Yee was Hidraot, Queen of Damascus, in both casts; her mezzo was clear, strong and confident. Vivien Illion was Phenice in both casts and Claire Hartlen and Joanna Loepp Thiessen alternated as Sidonie. They had some exquisite music to perform solely and in harmonies.
With a double-cast, there are far too many singers to provide a full review. But the two singers who performed Hate, Sarah Storms and Joelle Kontos were quite remarkable. Sarah Storms was captivating as a malicious seductress; Joelle Kontos powerfully embodied other-worldly evil.
The six-member orchestra, conducted by Melissa Doiron who also played the flute, filled the hall with lovely sound and carried the opera effortlessly through the battles and the magic and the full range of human and non-human emotions.
Performances were held at Lillian Piercey Concert Hall
Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts
Daphna Levit was born in Israel, served in the army, and received undergraduate degrees in linguistics and literature from Tel Aviv University. She has contributed numerous articles in both Hebrew and English to various publications such as Ha’aretz and The Other Israel and is coauthor of Israeli Rejectionism: A Hidden Agenda in the Middle East Peace Process. She lives and teaches courses at academic institutions in Nova Scotia.