I was out of the country when Rossini’s rarity Armida was telecast live from the Met May 1. Accordingly, I went to the repeat broadcast. Never before performed at the Met Rossini wrote the piece in 1817 for Naples’ San Carlo as a vehicle for his future wife Isabella Colbran. Renée Fleming was the reason for its appearance in New York. While anything by Rossini is of interest to any opera lover, Armida is Rossini a notch or two below his best.
The story is pretty weak even by the standards of early 19th century Italian opera. The sorceress Armida loves the warrior Rinaldo. He runs away with her to her magic island. They have a good time together. Two of Rinaldo’s colleagues find their way to the Island. They shame him into returning to his duties as as a soldier. Armida vows vengeance and the opera ends. This takes about three hours, more than four with the Met’s gargantuan intermissions. The story was based on Torquato Tasso’s then well known poem Gerusalemme Liberata.
While typical of its period Armida is also a bit ahead of it. It’s through written with the recitatives and numbers skillfully linked so that the transitions are almost unnoticed. But vocal pyrotechnics are the only reason for producing it. Ms Fleming’s voice is still a beautiful instrument, but as she declared during the first intermission it’s best suited for Mozart and Strauss. She doesn’t have the coloratura skills of Joan Sutherland or the vocal thrust and bite of Maria Callas which is needed for Armida’s intense vocal outbursts. The best singing and the loveliest music of the performance were the duets for Armida and Rinaldo.
Fleming’s lack of fire was particularly noticeable in the opera’s conclusion when Armida chooses vengeance over love. If you want to hear how this should be sung listen to Callas’s performance recorded live in Florence in 1952. The sound’s not good, but you can still hear how the part should be sung.
The opera is famous for its six tenor parts. The Met had five. Barry Banks sang both Gernando in the first act and Carlo in the third. Bruce Ford had been engaged to sing Goffredo, who appears only in the first act, but he was a no show and Charles Osborn sang the part. What the original tenor lineup was is not known to me. Kobie van Rensburg was Ubaldo, and Yeghishe Manucharyan was Eustazio.
The lead tenor part, Rinaldo, was sung by Lawrence Brownlee. Brownlee has an airy voice that is produced virtually entirely from the throat. Though he managed the difficult part well enough and had the high notes it demands, his voice is not particularly attractive. There’s a shift of gears as he goes from mid range to high.
Charles Osborn’s voice has coarsened since I last heard him several years ago. His top is no longer as free and easy as it was. Barry Banks has a solid voice and technique though subtly is not part of his singing. Rensburg has a frail voice in contrast to his tall stature. He was the only tenor clearly taller than Ms Fleming. Mr Manucharyan didn’t have a lot to do. Bass Keith Miller showed that it was possible to sing while walking on the backs of furies.
This production was Mary Zimmerman’s third shot at bel canto. While it wasn’t as embarrassing as her two earlier productions it still didn’t hit the mark. Just because the story is a fable doesn’t mean you have to give it a camp staging. It seems clear that she doesn’t have a feel for opera.
The furies (devils with horns and tails) that were wriggling around the stage at the beginning of the second act were pretty silly. This was followed by a long ballet that featured devils in drag; they wore tutus. The ballerinas placed fruit on their heads. I was immediately transported back to my youth and visions of Carmen Miranda. The ballet, though well performed, hardly seemed appropriate for an erotic liaison in a pleasure palace. Then there were the fiery dragons specified in the libretto – there weren’t any. Armida may have chosen vengeance, but she struck a pose rather than destroying her pleasure palace. And there were the signs telling us what was happening. Ms Zimmerman used the device to general disdain in La Sonnambula. It wasn’t any better here.
Gary Halvorson’s closeups weren’t kind to Armida’s nymphs. What were all those chubby middle aged women doing in a pleasure palace? But they sang well enough. Riccardo Frizza managed to keep things moving sufficient to abort slumber. Richard Hudson’s sets and costumes were bright and cheery in keeping with the general lack of seriousness that characterized this staging.
Armida deserves an occasional production, but only when the right soprano (or mezzo-soprano) is available. Ms Fleming is a fine artist, but this role is not the best showcase for her talent.