25 Aug 2011
Rossini’s Armida from the Met HD Live
What is to be done about Armida?
Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding. It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it.
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Maurice Greene (1696-1755) had a highly successful musical career. Organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a position to which he was elected when he was just 22 years-old, he later became organist of the Chapel Royal, Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge and, from 1735, Master of the King’s Music.
What is to be done about Armida?
In 1581, when Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata was published, it must have seemed like a vindication of Roman Catholic culture in the wake of the Protestant rift, perhaps even a vindication of Renaissance culture itself. Here was an epic poem that set out to emulate and even rival Homer and Vergil, the success of which almost justified its ambition; it was, moreover, an improvement on its models in that it was a Christian epic, founded on the re-taking of Jerusalem, albeit briefly, in the course of the First Crusade. True, Tasso peppered it all with fictions and fancy, but gone were the burlesque gods and the improper relationships of the Classical poets; uniting the many threads of plot was Tasso’s vigorous and almost unabashedly sensual style. Tasso’s work inspired similarly high-minded long poems from Ronsard, Lope de Vega, and many another, but his influence went well beyond Catholic Europe to England’s own Edmund Spenser and John Milton. It is fair to say that without Tasso’s example, there would have been no Paradise Lost, for better or worse.
The story of Armida, a Saracen sorceress in the employ of Satan, who tries in vain to derail the Christian champion Rinaldo from his labors as a Crusader, is only one of many episodes in the poem, and arguably, to modern eyes, not the most interesting: we might well prefer, even as we scour the pages of Tasso for something other than battle, the slight kickiness of Clorinda, a true woman warrior for the “pagan” side, who is inadvertently killed by her Christian boyfriend, but in a disturbingly fevered passage, is awarded a kiss, baptism, and death within minutes (Monteverdi must have preferred her as well; his depiction of the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is a crucial warmup for his last two operas). Armida perhaps too transparently combines the appeal of the rejected Dido, the magical Circe, and the vengeful Medea. Still, her potency had charm, as well as foreknowledge that, like Clorinda, she would be brought around to the “right” side just before dying, although few composers and artists carried her story as far as that. The list of composers who have taken her on is dazzling: to name Lully, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Vivaldi, Dvořák, and Rossini is to name only the most noted.
How much of Armida’s dangerous allure was left by Lully’s day, much less by 1817, when Rossini’s opera on the subject premiered? It is hard to imagine that Tasso’s poem was still required adult reading in post-Napoleonic Catholic Europe, nor that the story of the self-destruction of this strong woman evoked much more than the memory of a thrill.* What did Rossini see in this old tale? His affection for strong women—Rosina, Isabella, Elisabetta—is not hard to demonstrate; plus, Armida was his second pass at the material of the First Crusade, although his Tancredi of 1813 is founded on Voltaire’s play rather than Tasso’s epic. It is without question that Armida was a showpiece for the Teatro San Carlo, and most especially for the first Armida, Isabella Colbran, whose lifelong relationship with Rossini had just begun: what we are to make of the character of the title lady is even more puzzling today than it was in 1817, when the questions raised by the Crusades burn hotter than ever.
Armida has not seen very frequent revivals, given the difficulty of casting—Rossini’s heroine, here, must be at once a powerhouse, a songbird, and a femme fatale, musically and dramatically; she is surrounded and supported by six substantial tenor parts. A revival was staged for Maria Callas in 1952, and there is a respected recording with Cecilia Gasdia, as well as Renée Fleming’s 1993 outing in the role, at the time of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro. It is rare for any opera house to have six stalwart tenors at hand; even in the first production of 1817, the Naples house made do with four, with a little shrewd doubling; the current Met production, of which this DVD is a record, uses five.
In 2010, the Metropolitan Opera, at the urging of reigning diva, and current American soprano sweetheart Renée Fleming, brought Armida back to the stage under the direction of Mary Zimmerman, and the evidence is that Zimmerman is as puzzled as the rest of us by the intentions of Rossini’s opera. It has been Zimmerman’s custom, in opera, to throw a number of non-correlated ideas at a piece, and hope that one of them feels right and sticks—witness her disastrous Sonnambula for the Met a few years ago. Was it a comedy or a love-song gone wrong? Which parts were we to understand as authentically felt, and which mere play-acting, with winks and sniggers to the audience? Zimmerman didn’t know then, and the result was an unsatisfying night at the opera. Designer Richard Hudson’s unit set for Armida is a semi-circle of doorways, like half of a giant dome: picture-book palm trees, giant chrysanthemums, parrots, spiders, and foliage fly in and out. Tasso’s doughty Christian paladins wear rather smart ankle-length dress coats, while Armida herself opts for gowns that lie somewhere between princess dresses and prom outfits. At the opening of the second act, when the demons obedient to the sorceress rule the stage, the legions of Hell resemble nothing so much as Maurice Sendak’s embraceable beasts in Where the Wild Things Are, and then the hitherto-elusive keynote of the production rises to the mind: camp. It would be good to know whether this was Zimmerman and Hudson’s intention, or a product of their uncertainty about the meaning of the piece.
Zimmerman’s fondness for a kind of specious variety, which merely disguises a certain intellectual timidity, is exemplified by her treatment of the nymphs Armida produces to sing and dance for Rinaldo, presumably to reinforce her own erotic charms. Up to this point, nothing at all has been made of Armida’s supposed Muslim faith—and this is just, since throughout Renaissance iconography, Armida was nothing but a pinup girl—but here, quite suddenly, Armida’s backup group is dressed in matronly hijab, performing a kind of low-calorie version of Middle Eastern dance. They are perhaps the least erotic nymphs released to DVD in a generation—but moreover, why has Zimmerman imported the plainest sort of Muslim garb for them at this point? Is Armida, then, a disobedient Muslim girl? Or does her important work as a temptress and magician exempt her from local religious custom? Also present in the mix are danced and mimed representations of love and vengeance. Love, although iconographically a match for Cupid, is plainly a young lady; Vengeance, an idea apparently Zimmerman’s own, is something like a cross between a wrestler and a scorpion. Again, the ideas don’t match. What is Cupid, male or female, doing among the matrons of Riyadh, much less competing for Armida’s attention with a refugee a Guillermo del Toro film?
One can hardly blame Zimmerman for trying to distance herself from Armida’s problems for a contemporary audience, which compound the problems of opera itself: all the heavy emoting; the exclamations of pride and rage; the whimsy and fantasy; the unredeemed sexism and cultural chauvinism. What does one do, after all, with that unwelcome background of the Crusade? Are the paladins, seen with the hindsight of history, now to be understood as the monsters? Are Idraote and Armida, their Muslim adversaries, still wicked, or are they freedom fighters? Hudson and Zimmerman try everything: Idraote is faintly pasha-like; the paladins blusterers, and Armida is left with a kind of flatly naughty sexiness.
The trouble comes, however, in the third act, when Armida must evolve from Circe to Dido to Medea in the space of fifteen minutes. After Zimmerman has invited us to roll our eyes at all the ridiculous machinery of opera for more than two hours, are we to believe in the sincerity of Armida’s love, and condole her in the pain of her abandonment? Are we to experience the thrill of fear when she swears vengeance? Or is it all Armida’s fakery; or Rossini’s? Certainly Fleming herself seems to want us to believe that Armida takes herself at face value throughout, but Zimmerman has rather abandoned her in this production, and there is no moment when it seems clear to the viewer that Armida’s calculation turns into passion: Fleming is passionate, in her predictably winning way, about every moment as it passes.
Armida, as a vocal exercise, is a curious choice for Fleming at this stage in her career. A sampling of her essay at the role in 1993 is revelatory. While Fleming has never had a true Rossinian instrument, there was a focus and a drive in her voice then that has since been replaced by a darker, more floral sound that makes her such a fine Rusalka, Thaïs, Arabella, and most of all, the Countess in Strauss’ Capriccio. More and more, one can hear intention rather than ease driving every roulade in her coloratura. Her leading man here is as fine a Rossini singer as one could wish for, the phenomenal Lawrence Brownlee, whose passage-work is consistently a marvel of ring, clarity, and accuracy. Their duets—and the duets in Armida are arguably Rossini’s finest, and perhaps the musical heart of the work—are both musical and touching. It is a pity that Fleming did not have such a Rinaldo at her side in 1993. Special note should be made of the heroic labors of Barry Banks, doubling as Gernando and Carlo: Banks is a singer of great verve and vigor, and rightly acclaimed both here and back in the United Kingdom. Among the remaining singers—John Osborn as Goffredo, Yeghishe Manucharyan as Eustazio, Peter Volpe as Armida’s wicked uncle Idraote, Keith Miller as the imp Astarotte—only Kobie van Rensburg as Ubaldo seemed underpowered. Graciela Daniele and Daniel Pelzig, despite being trapped in the production’s odd concepts, have created a witty second act ballet: Aaron Loux, as Rinaldo’s danced counterpart, is a pleasure to watch.
The fortunes of Armida are a kind of template for the fortunes of both Tasso and bel canto in our day. It is not easy to muster up a fondness for the earnest morality and curious sensuality of the Gerusalemme; the recursive wit and cynical fantasy of Tasso’s great rival Ludovico Ariosto are more to our taste. Then, too, the stylized forms and emotions of the Baroque, and the odd, tangled interior conflicts their operas illustrate are somehow easier to manage than the candid grandeur of the earlier nineteenth century. Full productions of Rossini’s serious masterpieces (Maometto; Guillaume Tell) are few and far between; Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda and Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan, to name just two, have almost disappeared, while the fortunes of Handel’s Orlando, Ariodante, and Alcina, all based on Ariosto’s zany Orlando Furioso, rise and rise. There is no shortage of singers equal to the demands of bel canto, even given approaches as different as those of Fleming and Brownlee here; what is lacking is a sense of how we want to approach these great works in the contemporary context. Rossini’s Armida, and her sisters, it seems, await a better day.
* [Editor’s Note: For a survey of “Orientalism” in contemporary fiction, see Reeva Spector Simon, Spies and Holy Wars (Austin: Univ. Texas Press, 2010).