It is no coincidence that this issue from the Sony archives arrives on the shelves as Renée Fleming revisits this rarely performed opera in its debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It’s in a new production by Mary Zimmerman which opened on 22 April 2010. The production is scheduled for showing on worldwide cinemas on Saturday 1 May 2010. It will be interesting to see how a modern theatre, with all its technical gizmos tackles the challenges that are inherent in the libretto. By all accounts these were certainly achieved at the premiere at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples on 11 November 1817.
The story of Armida is based on one of the epic literary creations of The Renaissance, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusaleme liberata.
The story concerns the First Crusade. Rossini’s opera is one among many by composers, including Lully, Gluck, Handel and Haydn, who set variations of the story of the sorceress Armida and the knight Rinaldo. How Rossini came to compose his version starts a few years before. In 1815 impresario Barbaja tempted Rossini, who he saw as the foremost opera composer of the time, to be Music Director of the Royal Theatres of Naples. The contract required the composer to write two operas each year and allowed him to undertake work elsewhere. Barbaja had assembled a formidable array of singers including the coloratura soprano Isabella Colbran, renowned for her range and dramatic skills. He had also assembled an array of tenors including Andrea Nozzari and Giovanni David whose extended vocal range was as renowned as that of Colbran.
Rossini took full advantage of the provisions of his contract and after the premiere of his first opera for the San Carlo, Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra
on 4 October 1815 he went to Rome. In that city he composed and presented Torvaldo e Dorliska
on 15 December and Il Barbiere di Siviglia
two months later. He then returned to Naples to present La Gazetta
in September 1816 and Otello
in the December. After this hectic schedule Rossini went off again, presenting La Cenerentola
in Rome a month later and La Gazza Ladra
(The Thieving Magpie) in Milan on 31 May 1817. During this latest absence calamity overtook the San Carlo in the form of a fire that gutted the building. It was, however, a Royal Theatre and the King of Naples, a great lover of opera, was seen regularly in his box at the San Carlo. It was only two years since he had, with some assistance from the English, returned to the city from exile in Sicily during the Napoleonic occupation and where, in Palermo, a theatre had been built to present opera during his exile.
It seems that money was no object and the theatre was rebuilt with the best technical facilities of the time. To open the refurbished theatre, Barbaja was keen for a work of musical individuality, one breaking away from the prevailing conventions. Above all he wanted a work utilising the new facilities in terms of scenic effect and dance. The fourteen-minute ballet was good practice for Rossini’s later Paris works where a ballet was de rigueur
(CD 2 trs.9-11). In fact Rossini produced his most romantic and opulent opera including three extended love duets for Armida and Rinaldo (CD 1 trs.18-19), (CD 2 trs.4-5) and (CD 3 trs.5-6). The accompaniment to the second and third of those involves solo cello and violin respectively.
In an opera with only one female part it must be nearly unique to have a requirement for six tenor roles. There are also two bass roles. The tenor roles can be divided into three coloraturas and three lyric with two appearing only in act one and a different two in act three. This allowed for some doubling up at the premiere and does so in the only other recording I know, that conducted by Scimone on Arts
) and in which the two bass roles are taken by one singer. Rossini took advantage of the situation to compose an extended scene and trio for the tenors in act three which is surely unique as well as vocally thrilling (CD 3 trs.7-10).
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. It will be interesting to see how these challenges are met in New York. It is to be hoped that a DVD will be issued in due course.
I have referred to the1992 recording on Arts
. Comparing the two is tempting, but would be false as the different editions mean that there is significantly more music here than in the Arts recording which, incidentally, gives the incorrect total timing of 123.05 on the case instead of 143.05. There is also the matter of Scimone’s brisker tempi with his I Solisti Veneti which accounts for a little of the reduced timings. Danielle Gatti, in this recording, is more languorous in letting the flow of Rossini’s romantic melody enjoy its full due even in the more dramatic confrontations.
As to the singing, it must have been something of a surprise when the young Renée Fleming replaced the advertised Anna Caterina Antonacci at Pesaro. Her acting and vocal skills would have more likely matched those of Colbran the creator of the role. But Fleming was no mean bel canto
singer at that time, as her performance in Donizetti’s Rosmonda D'lnghilterra
will testify (see review
). As I note in that review, had she chosen the bel canto
repertoire above the traditional more popular lyric roles she would have had at least as extensive a recorded legacy as she enjoys now. In a recent Met broadcast intermission interview, she stated that she had sung around ten or so such roles by the time of this Armida
. Her vocal skill and lovely voice is heard throughout this recording whilst her dramatic bel canto
capabilities lack for little in Armida’s finale (CD 3 trs.14-18).
The six tenors acquit themselves well with Gregory Kunde as Rinaldo more appealing in overall tone than Chris Merritt on the rival version, if lacking the latter’s lower notes. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is sonorous and characterful as Idraote and nicely contrasted in tone with Sergey Sadvorny as Astarotte. The sound is well balanced and the applause after arias is appreciative and measured.
Despite the spectacle of the production, the opera was only moderately well received. The contemporary critical opinion was that the music was too Germanic
; the implication was that it was too romantic in the manner of Weber albeit it predated Der Freischutz
by nearly four years. Whilst finding favour in Germany the technical requirements for the staging of the work restricted its spread elsewhere. By the end of the 1830s it had disappeared, only re-emerging as a vehicle for Callas at the 1952 Maggio Musicale
in Florence. The requirement of six tenors is a complication, albeit with the possibility of doubling. However, with three of these involving much high-lying tessitura the skill for which has only become more generally available again in the last twenty years and perhaps affordable only at major houses such as New York’s Metropolitan. How the 1952 revival managed I don’t know. As my own multiple cinema is not showing the transmission on 1 May I will wait and hope for a DVD and that the production team do justice to Rossini’s creation not to some concept of their own.
Robert J Farr