25 Aug 2011
Rossini’s Armida from the Met HD Live
What is to be done about Armida?
Opera Philadelphia deserves congratulations on yet another coup. The company co-commissioned Cold Mountain, an opera by Jennifer Higdon based on Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s celebrated Civil War epic.
For their first of two recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber devised an interesting programme - popular Schubert mixed with songs by Wolfgang Rihm and by Huber himself.
There are not many opera productions that you would cross oceans to see. Graham Vick’s Götterdämmerung in Sicily however compelled such a voyage.
Premièred in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile has a libretto, by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, which stirs the blackly comic, the farcical and the bizarre into a surreal melange, blending contemporary satire with the frankly outlandish.
Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience
One of the leading Russian composers of his generation, Alexander Raskatov’s reputation in the UK and western Europe derives from several, recent large-scale compositions, such as his reconstruction of Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony from a barely legible manuscript (the work was first performed in 2007 in the Dresden Frauenkirche by the Dresden Philharmonic under Dennis Russell Davies), and his 2010 opera A Dog’s Heart, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire (which was directed by Simon McBurney at English National Opera in 2010, following the opera’s premiere at Netherlands Opera earlier that year).
I’m not sure that St John’s Smith Square was the most appropriate venue for Opera Danube’s latest production: Jacques Offenbach’s satirical frolic, Orpheus in the Underworld.
This nasty little opera evening in Lyon lived up to the opera’s initial reputation as pure pornophony. This is the erotic Shostakovich of the D minor cello sonata, it is the sarcastic and complicated Shostakovich of The Nose . . .
During December 2015 and presently in January Lyric Opera of Chicago has featured the world premiere of the opera Bel Canto, with music by Jimmy López and libretto by Nilo Cruz, based on the novel by Ann Patchett.
Christmas at the Royal Opera House is all about magic, mystery and miracles: as represented by the conjuror’s exploits in The Nutcracker — with its Kingdom of Sweets and Sugar Plum Fairy — or, as in the Linbury Theatre this year, the fantastical adventures of the Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Lila, and her companions — a lovesick elephant, swashbuckling pirates, tropical beasts and Fire-Fiends.
The title role is a deciding factor in Madama Butterfly. Despite a last-minute conductor cancellation, last Saturday’s concert performance at the Concertgebouw was a resounding success, thanks to Lianna Haroutounian’s opulent, heart-stealing Cio-Cio-San.
With this performance of vocal and instrumental works composed by the 10-year-old Mozart and his contemporaries during 1766, Classical Opera entered the second year of their 27-year project, MOZART 250, which is designed to ‘contextualise the development and influences of [sic] the composer’s artistic personality’ and, more audaciously, to ‘follow the path that subsequently led to some of the greatest cornerstones of our civilisation’.
Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger were due to give the latest installment in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert songs series, but both had to cancel at short notice. Fortunately, the Wigmore Hall rises to such contingencies, and gave us Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware. Since there's a huge buzz about Appl, this was an opportunity to hear more of what he can do.
The phrase ‘Sunday afternoon concert’ may suggest light, post-prandial entertainment, but soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield and her accompanist, Simon Lepper, swept away any such conceptions in this demanding programme at St. John’s Smith Square.
When, o when, will someone put Peter Sellars and his compendium of clichés out of our misery?
This recording, made in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music in June 2014, is the fourth disc in SOMM’s series of recordings with Paul Spicer and the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir.
Having recently followed some by-ways through the music of Purcell, Monteverdi and Cavalli, L’Arpeggiata turned the spotlight on traditional folk music in this characteristically vibrant and high-spirited performance at the Wigmore Hall.
Edward Gardner brought all his experience as a choral and opera conductor to bear in this stirring performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time at the Barbican Hall, with a fine cast of soloists, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus.
‘Apt for voices or viols’: eager to maximise sales among the domestic market in Elizabethan England, publishers emphasised that the music contained in collections such as Thomas Morley’s First Book of Madrigals to Four Voices of 1594 was suitable for performance by any combination of singers and players.
It was a single title but a double bill and there was far more happening than Gordon Getty and Claude Debussy. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe.
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).