25 Aug 2011
Rossini’s Armida from the Met HD Live
What is to be done about Armida?
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
RILM Abstracts of Music Literature is an international database for musicological and ethnomusicological research, providing abstracts and indexing for users all over the world. As such, RILM’s style guide (How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style) differs fairly significantly from those of more generalized style guides such as MLA or APA.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Carolyn Sampson has long avoided the harsh glare of stardom but become a favourite singer for “those in the know” — and if you are not one of those it is about time you were.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
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).