25 Aug 2011
Rossini’s Armida from the Met HD Live
What is to be done about Armida?
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.
Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.
On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.
Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.
You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.
If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.
Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.
Honours yet again to Oehms Classics who understand the importance of excellence. A composer as good, and as individual, as Walter Braunfels deserves nothing less.
I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.
For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.
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).