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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792 –1868)
Armida - Melodramma in three acts in the Critical Edition prepared by Claudio Scimone
First performed at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples on 11 November 1817
Armida, Princess of Damascus, Sorceress, Cecilia Gasdia (sop); Rinaldo, Knight Crusader, Lord of Matalban, Chris Merritt (ten); Goffredo, Commander in Chief of the Crusaders, and Carlo, Knight Crusader, William Matteuzzi (ten); Gernando, Knight of the Crusades, rival of Rinaldo, and Ubaldo, Knight Crusader, Bruce Ford (ten); Eustazio, Knight of the Crusades, brother of Godfrey, Charles Workman (ten); Idraote, Uncle of Armida, and Astarotte, Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass)
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
I Solisti Veneti/Claudio Scimone
rec. 19 June 1992. Teatro Communale di Treviso, Treviso, Italy
ARTS 47327-2 [76.10 + 76.45]

The story of Armida is based on one of the epic literary creations of The Renaissance: Torquato Tasso’s Gerusaleme liberata which was about the First Crusade. Rossini’s opera is one among many composers, including Lully, Gluck, Handel and Haydn, who set variations of the story of the sorceress Armida and the knight Rinaldo.

Rossini composed the work on his return to the re-built Teatro San Carlo, Naples, after premiering his Thieving Magpie at La Scala on May 31st 1817 and La Cenerentola in Rome on 25th January that same year. The impresario of the theatre was keen for a work of musical individuality, one breaking away from the prevailing conventions. Above all he wanted an opera utilising the new facilities of the refurbished theatre in terms of scenic effect and dance. The fourteen-minute ballet was good practise for Rossini’s later Paris works where a ballet was de rigueur (CD 2 tr. 6). In fact Rossini produced his most romantic opera to date in terms of the spirit and opulence of the music including three extended love duets (CD 1 trs 15-16), (CD 2 trs. 1-2 and 11-12). The libretto called for lavish staging including Armida’s palace and enchanted garden. There were to be many comings and disappearances as well as dances by nymphs, cherubs and dragons. The lovers Armida and Rinaldo descend on a cloud that becomes her chariot and, as she waves her wand, turns into her castle. Despite the spectacle of the production, the opera was only moderately well received. The contemporary critical opinion was that the music was ‘too German’; the implication was that it was too romantic in the manner of Weber. The requirements for the staging of the work restricted its spread although it found favour in Germany. By the end of the 1830s it had disappeared, only re-emerging as a vehicle for Callas at the 1952 Maggio Musicale in Florence. Added to the complications and cost of staging the work is the requirement of six tenors, albeit with the prospect of doubling. These roles involve much high-lying tessitura the skill for which has only in the last twenty or so years become available again. How the 1952 revival managed I don’t know. The sole female role is that of Armida. At the premiere Isabella Colbran sang the role. She was shortly to become Rossini’s wife, which may account for the inspiration for some of his voluptuous music.

This recording of Armida followed performances under the baton of the conductor and Rossini scholar Claudio Scimone. He draws vital and vibrant playing from I Solisti Veneti, whilst the Ambrosian Opera Chorus sound Italian to a man, British or not. In fact I am tempted to suggest an Italian chorus would not have given the disciplined and superbly articulated performance that is found here. The chorus are not merely protagonists in their own right, but are vital supports in solo arias in a manner that Rossini had not used before to the same extent. As the hero Rinaldo, Chris Merritt, who can be vocally variable, is in good voice with firm vocal control at both ends of his considerable range. Both William Matteuzzi and Bruce Ford double up roles. Bruce Ford has the better voice of the two and is heard to advantage in Gernando’s Non soffriro l’affesa with chorus (CD 1 tr. 13). William Matteuzzi’s tone is somewhat dry but he manages his demanding music more than adequately (CD 1 trs. 3-4). In the tenorino role of Eustazio, Charles Walkman’s lighter tone can be heard in the act I ensembles Nos. 3 and 4 (CD 1 trs. 5-11). Ferruccio Furlanetto doubles as Idraote and the devil Astarotte. At this stage of his career his flexible well-tuned bass lacked some of the sonority and weight it developed later, but his contributions are musical and well characterised (CD 1 trs. 21-24). Before leaving the male voices I mustn’t forget to mention the act III terzetto Lo splendor di que rai for three tenors where high Cs abound (CD 2 trs. 13-14).

Cecilia Gasdia sings the sorceress-cum-seductress of the title. Armida preys on Christian soldiers and tempts Rinaldo, the most formidable of the heroes into her web. Whilst she may not have the ideal seductive voluptuousness of voice, or even temperament, to perfectly characterise the seductress of act I, her singing and coloratura is perfectly pitched and with a wide variety of colour. Her greatest vocal strengths are in her expression and true coloratura as heard in the central showpiece aria, with chorus, D’Amore al doce impero (CD 2 tr. 5). There her runs are pinpoint in accuracy and without aspirates. Even more formidable is her Dov’e son io? (CD 2 tr. 15), and the remainder of her contribution to the final scene as Armida flies off in her chariot ostensibly to wage battle another day, Rinaldo having escaped her clutches.

This recording is bright with clear separation of orchestra and solo voices, which have a little added bloom. The booklet has a poorly translated rather over-erudite essay covering the Armida legend, Rossini’s composition of the opera and the 1952 revival. A synopsis, without reference to acts, let alone tracks, is dispersed through this essay. There is a full libretto in Italian only. The tracks indicated in the libretto can be cross-referenced to the track listing and read in conjunction with a synopsis available as a free download on the web.

Armida comes in at number 22 of the 39 titles in the Rossini oeuvre. The music is mature Rossini at his best. The difficulties of staging and casting have doubtless contributed to its neglect. Rossinians are fortunate that this well recorded and conducted performance, originally on the Europa label, is available again. Despite its positive qualities, and being the only currently available recording of the work, it is at budget price. Arts Music is to be commended for making it available again. I suggest lovers of Rossini’s works, and Italian opera in general, go out and purchase it, now, and give encouragement to the commendable enterprise shown by Arts Music in re-issuing this fine performance of an undeservedly neglected work.

Robert J Farr

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