25 Aug 2011
Rossini’s Armida from the Met HD Live
What is to be done about Armida?
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
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.
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).