Gluck and 'Armide' -- Victims of Product Placement?

armide-thumb2As any advertiser knows, the opinions of popular celebrities, even fictional ones, can have a direct influence on real life sales figures -- and we find examples of that in sales of everything from adult beverages to classical music.

When it comes to beverages, do you remember the 2004 movie Sideways? It stars Paul Giamatti as a self-styled wine expert called Miles, with an obsession for pinot noir. In one scene, an anxious Miles is urged to sample a bit of merlot, just to be sociable. Flying off the handle, he utters the film's most quoted -- and probably most censored -- line: "I am not drinking any [bleeping] merlot!"

The movie, as it turned out, was a hit. And, fictional or not, it was widely reported that Miles and his oenophile convictions caused a spike in sales of pinot noir, while merlot sales fell precipitously.

In the music business, the same thing may well have happened to the fortunes of two, 18th-century opera composers. The 1984 Oscar-winner Amadeus portrays the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with Tom Hulce in the title role. At one point the cinematic Mozart is entertaining partygoers at the keyboard. Taking requests, he's asked to improvise in the style of J. S. Bach, and obliges. Other composers are also suggested. But when the request is for something in the manner of Christoph Willibald Gluck, Mozart refuses -- abruptly dismissing Gluck as "boring."

By 1984, of course, Mozart had been one of the world's most beloved composers for a couple of centuries. Even so, the movie increased his popularity. And poor old Gluck? Well, we're not aware of any official sales statistics. But do you know anyone who saw Amadeus and immediately rushed off to buy a handful of Gluck CDs?

Still, as they say, Amadeus is "only a movie." Historically, Gluck was among the most important and innovative opera composers of all time -- particularly when it came to opera. And there was one, rather more popular composer whose operas unquestionably displayed that influence. As you might have guessed, it was Mozart.

So, the real life Mozart quite likely didn't find Gluck's music "boring" -- tall tales notwithstanding. In fact, Gluck's operas deserve their reputation as among the most inventive ever composed, and the one featured here is an action-packed example.

Gluck's Armide is based on an episode from Torquato Tasso's epic poem Jerusalem Liberated. The title character is called Armida in Tasso's Italian original, and many opera lovers will recognize the name. Her story has been told in operas by dozens of composers, including Lully, Handel, Rossini, Haydn and Dvorak.

The version by Gluck premiered in Paris in 1777, and like many other Gluck dramas it was a challenge to the operatic status quo. Musically, it continues the composer's "reform opera" style -- avoiding standard recitatives and arias in favor of forms Gluck considered less restrictive, and more naturally expressive. The opera also breached operatic etiquette. Gluck used a libretto virtually identical to the one Lully had set nearly a century earlier. Setting a slightly altered libretto would have been considered better manners.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Armide from the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. Soprano Karina Gauvin stars in the title role, with tenor Frédéric Antoun as the knight who falls under Armide's powerful spell.