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Renée Fleming as Armida [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
02 May 2010

Rossini’s Armida, New York

Armida is fabulous. That is to say, the story is a fable. Rinaldo, the very type of Christian warrior, is torn between his duty to lead the First Crusade and the sensual ecstasies offered by the beautiful sorceress Armida.

Armida: Renée Fleming; Rinaldo: Lawrence Brownlee; Goffredo: John Osborn; Eustazio: Yegishe Manucharyan; Gernando and Carlo: Barry Banks; Ubaldo: Kobie van Rensburg. Production by Mary Zimmerman. Metropolitan Opera chorus and orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Frizza. Performance of April 27.

Above: Renée Fleming as Armida

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

 

Armida, in her turn, is torn between sincere passion for Rinaldo and lust for vengeance when he returns to his quest — as he must, since he’s one of the mythic founders of the House of Este, and his distant descendant, the Duke of Ferrara, will be the patron of the poet Torquato Tasso, who invented both Rinaldo and Armida in his epic Gerusalemme Liberata.

Love or Duty? In Rossini’s day every literate Italian knew the poem and half the leading opera composers set the story. It has reached the Met previously as Gluck’s Armide (Enrico Caruso sang Renaud) and, more recently, as Handel’s Rinaldo (in which Carol Vaness’s Armida failed to bewitch Marilyn Horne in the title role, with Samuel Ramey making his debut as Armida’s wicked uncle). This is a magical story, and any production should dazzle. Fireworks (as in the Met’s Central Park presentation of Rinaldo with Horne) are called for.

ARMIDA_Brownlee_as_Rinaldo_.gifLawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo

Rossini’s version, which only reached the Met this April, is one of the nine operas he devised as principal composer for the San Carlo in Naples, then (and now) the only opera house in the peninsula that seriously challenged La Scala for size and grandeur. Rossini was expected to write appropriate vehicles for the local prima donna, Isabella Colbran, a spectacular mezzo soprano who eventually became his wife, and for several coloratura tenors under contract at once. In consequence, all these operas are tenor-heavy, and the writing is of an elaboration until recently long out of fashion; therefore none of these operas are terribly well known but many have had successful revivals lately: Beverly Sills made her Met debut in Le Siete de Corinto and Barry Banks has appeared at the City Opera in both Ermione and La Donna del Lago. Armida features a trio for coloratura tenors — surely the first time such a thing has ever been heard at the Met — and boasts six tenor roles in all. Some of these are short enough to permit doubling up in case of illness, which happened on this occasion — Mr. Banks sang his own role in Act III while gallantly replacing a colleague in Act I.

The Met’s production of Armida is by Mary Zimmerman. If she does not take the story quite seriously, well, who could believe in Rossini as a composer of sinister enchantments? The magical elements in this score (diabolic forest, orgiastic palace, ecstatic garden, transformations, bewilderments) are more Halloween parade than Pandemonium. In fact, these elements — including the changeable enchantress and the naïve invading soldiers who flirt with the ladies and carry a magical spear — seem to belong rather to Wagner’s Parsifal. Had Wagner read Tasso? Surely — Wagner read everything, and he adored Italy. Is his desperate Kundry an incarnation of Armida as well as Herodias? It seems likely enough. But Wagner’s music has a gift for the neurotic and despairing soul that Rossini never attempts — indeed, what Italian would have dared to depict such emotions in 1817? He’d have been lucky to escape with a lynching or a year in the galleys. Parsifal is also a fable — but a dark one. Armida is epic lite.

ARMIDA_van_Rensburg_Brownle.gifKobie van Rensburg as Ubaldo, Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo, and Barry Banks as Carlo

In Zimmerman’s entirely charming staging, wicked Armida’s garden of love is a nineteenth-century concert hall in which she declaims her great aria, “D’Amore al dolce impero” from an ornamental music stand, rather like a schoolmarm preaching intemperance. Her magic wand is a conductor’s baton. The enormously lengthy ballet of sinister delights is deliciously choreographed by Graciela Daniele as a send-up of an Orientalist orgy, with houris tempting Rinaldo with apples, enormous rat demons in ballet-skirted drag, and the entire Met women’s chorus in bellydance pantaloons. Richard Hudson’s set is a semicircular arena with many doorways revealing the Dome of the Rock in the first scene, a demonic forest at other times, and presiding deities (Love, Vengeance) a-spy over the top. This is the happiest, most enjoyable new production the Met has given us all year, winsome and welcome and attractive, suitable to the work, the interpretation and the audience.

The singing, alas, was not at quite so high a level, and the applause reflected this. Ovations at the conclusion were perfunctory; I did not join them. There were many thrilling moments, and it’s extraordinary that the Met or any opera house can present the work acceptably at all, but there were no individual performances to leave one dazzled and gasping — as there certainly were twenty-five years ago, when Handel’s Rinaldo reached the house.

Armida was presented in particular to suit the talents of Renée Fleming, who has sung the piece in concert with Opera Orchestra of New York. Fleming, gifted with one of the treasurable voices of her generation, has proved a controversial, often irritating, deployer of her gifts. In German, Russian and French works she seems to focus harder on giving us what the composer asks for, but in Italian roles she follows no compass but her own. Her first aria, her sortita, was typical of her recent style in bel canto: runs were casual and uneven, with no attention to individual notes, no grace, no focus on the melodic line, and diction as bad as Sutherland’s worst — but Sutherland sang the notes, with the evenness and point bel canto asks for. “D’Amore al dolce impero” found her more cautious, rhythmically and dramatically, lacking the fire of the famous Callas version of the aria and the precision and wit of Joyce Di Donato. In her duets she hewed tighter to the notes, meeting her partner (usually Lawrence Brownlee) on common ground, but when Armida’s despairs took center stage, notes seemed to come from — and be tossed out to — any old where. There was no logic to her ornaments. The style was not Rossini’s; it was Fleming’s. Admirers of the lady may be thrilled; admirers of the composer will have doubts.

ARMIDA_Manucharyan_and_Osbo.gifYeghishe Manucharyan as Eustazio (center, grey jacket) and John Osborn as Goffredo (far right)

It is unfortunate that Ms. Fleming (or the management) has insisted that she sing all the many performances of Armida given this spring and also next year — I’d love to hear how the opera would work with Di Donato or Diana Damrau or Ruth Ann Swenson, all brilliant coloratura technicians who tend to honor the composer rather than their own jazzy whim.

Among the six — on this occasion five — tenors demanded by an uncut performance of Armida (and at four hours, including two intermissions, you have to suppose that most of it was here), most were very good, none were over-the-top spectacular. John Osborn (Goffredo) and Yegishe Manucharyan (Eustazio) made little impression. Kobie van Rensburg, who specializes in florid music, brought a rather gravelly sound to the soldier Ubaldo, which made a pleasing contrast to the more lyric voices of Mr. Banks (Carlo) in their duets, and with Mr. Brownlee (Rinaldo) in the notorious trio.

Barry Banks was right to take on the suddenly vacated part of Gernando in Act I — he thrives on angry coloratura (as Oreste in Ermione at the City Opera, for example), and his singing had exciting force if lacking beauty. As the very different Carlo, he produced a more sensuous tone and he is an excellent actor.

Lawrence Brownlee has become an able actor, as was not originally the case, and handled Rinaldo’s transformations convincingly — he must fight a duel with rapiers, fall convincingly in love, suffer visible torments of his divided soul, and at last throw aside his pleading lover with visible regret. His voice is well produced and gifted with luscious high notes, but he lacks the great bel canto desideratum of evenness — runs that cross the octaves seem to be produced by different voices, from different parts of his body. The effect is impressive but not graceful or stylish. His best singing — like Ms. Fleming’s — came when he sang in duet or trio with others, holding him back from awkward individual flights. Bel canto was all about individual (as well as parallel) vocal flights — but that was back when singers could be expected to do it with proper taste.

A friend objects that Armida is a second-rate opera. True. But if second-rate operas did not permit, nay encourage, first-rate singing, opera would have died out centuries ago and small loss. Some of the greatest singing ever heard has come in second-rate operas, but not on the present occasion.

Riccardo Frizza accomplished the great task of getting through the endless and witty ballet without producing tedium — rhythms that depicted marching soldiers or languishing lovers or general mayhem were individually colorful, and Ms. Daniele’s hilarious dances had the solid ground of Mr. Frizza as their launching pad. In the opera proper, number succeeded number with an impeccable musical logic and impulsion that was not always clear in the libretto, and the Met orchestra sounded as if it was having fun with Rossini’s exquisitely varied effects. (Terrific otherworldly harp moment there.) The chorus sang that way, too — especially the men, soldiers in Act I and demons at other times. The ladies sang well but might let themselves go a bit when portraying Middle Eastern dance, even if Rossini’s rhythms are not appropriate to the stuff.

John Yohalem

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