(1792 - 1868)
Armida - opera in three acts (1817)
Armida, Princess of Damascus, Sorceress - Renée Fleming
(soprano); Rinaldo, Knight Crusader, Lord of Matalban - Lawrence
Brownlee (tenor); Goffredo, Commander in Chief of the Crusaders
- John Osborn (tenor); Carlo, Knight Crusader, - Barry Banks (tenor);
Gernando, Knight of the Crusades, rival of Rinaldo - Barry Banks
(tenor); Ubaldo, Knight Crusader - Kobie Van Rensberg (tenor); Eustazio,
Knight of the Crusades, brother of Godfrey - Yeghishe Manucharyan
(tenor); Idraote, Uncle of Armida, - Peter Volpe (bass); Astarotte,
Keith Miller (bass).
Ballet, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Riccardo
Produced by Mary Zimmerman.
Set and Costume Design by Richard Hudson.
Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt.
Choreography by Graciela Daniele
rec. 1 May 2010
Picture Format: HD. 16:9 Colour. Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS
DECCA 074 3416
[2 DVDs: 171:00 + 12:00 (bonus)]
The year 2010 seemed to be a red letter one for Rossini’s
third opera seria written for Naples. How come, you might ask,
for an opera premiered in 1817, a mere one hundred and twenty
seven years before! Well, Armida was premiered in both
America and Britain in 2010. You might well ask why the delay
and why now? The answers could be several and inter-related,
but surely if a work is deserving of such an auspicious debut
as at America’s best operatic address, The Metropolitan
Opera, New York, there must be a story somewhere. Doubtless
this American debut had something to do with the soprano Renée
Fleming being the diva of the moment in that house. She had
sung the role at the Pesaro Festival, devoted to the works of
Rossini, way back in 1993. A live recording of a performance
from Pesaro was reissued more or less concurrently with this
series of Met performances (see review).
I do not know how many, if any, of the other eight Naples Rossini
opera seria have been seen, at the Met. The situation in Britain
is somewhat better, particularly at the summer Festivals. That
at Garsington, a country house summer venue near Oxford, has
featured many stagings of Rossini’s works including at
least one other of his Naples opera seria. It was at Garsington
in the summer of 2010 that Armida had its UK premiere
and I was very pleased to see it there (see review),
particularly as no cinema in the North West of England, where
I live, took the Met transmission of Armida.
There are two other possible reasons for the neglect of Rossini’s
Armida. The first is that it requires six tenors, all
with coloratura skills. This is a species that largely died
out following the death and retirement of the bel canto
composers of the Italian primo ottocento: Rossini, Bellini and
Donizetti. The works of their successors, Verdi, Puccini and
the verismo composers, written for larger orchestras and denser
orchestration, demanded bigger voices. In the past thirty or
so years the light flexible coloratura tenor has made a come-back.
This has made it possible to stage some of Rossini’s Naples
opera seria that originally featured some of the most renowned
practitioners of the day such as Giovanni David, Andrea Nozzari
and Giovanni Rubini, albeit that only one of them featured in
the premiere of Armida. As at the Naples premiere there
is the possibility of doubling up. At Garsingtom only four tenors
were featured whilst in this production the English coloratura
tenor Barry Banks portrays Gernando, who is killed in act one,
and Carlo who appears in act two; both major parts.
The second possible explanation for the neglect of Armida lies
in the complexities required of the staging. Whilst Rossini
was away from Naples presenting La Cenerentola in Rome
and La Gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) in Milan, 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 seems that money was no object and the theatre
was rebuilt with the very best technical facilities of the time.
To open the refurbished theatre, the impresario Barbaja was
keen for a work of musical individuality, one breaking away
from the prevailing conventions. Above all he wanted from Rossini
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
(DVD.2 CHs.10-13). Rossini produced his most romantic opera
to date in terms of the opulence and romanticism of the music
including three extended love duets for Armida and Rinaldo,
one in each act (DVD 1 CHs.18-21 ) (DVD 2, CHs.6-7 and 18-19).
The accompaniment to the second and third of those involves
solo cello and violin respectively. The libretto also called
for lavish staging including Armida’s palace and an enchanted
garden. There were to be many comings and disappearances as
well as dances by nymphs, cherubs and dragons. The lovers Armida
and Rinaldo were to descend on a cloud that becomes her chariot
and, as she waves her wand, turns into her castle. These requirements,
if taken literally, constitute considerable technical challenges,
even for a money-rich operatic company such as America’s
premier operatic establishment.
The eponymous sorceress is the only female part. At the premiere
the role was taken by the formidable Isobel Colbran. It seems
she had the timbre of a mezzo-soprano with a good extension
at the top of her voice. This is just the area in Fleming’s
lyric soprano voice one would expect the richest sound and this
she provides with vocal security. Although she states, in her
brief interval interview, that she has sung nine bel canto roles
she is not always comfortable in the higher reaches and free
decoration of the vocal line. She certainly lacks some of the
freedom and security of her earlier performances at Pesaro.
All that being said, she does consistently sing beautifully.
She produces notes at the lower part of her voice in Armida’s
mad scene (DVD 2. Chs.23-28), and does so with a vehemence,
that I did not expect. Dressed in a series of largely irrelevant
couture gowns in acts one and two, she looks quite ravishing
as she affects beguiling, seductive or agonised glances, as
she deems appropriate.
Of the five tenors, act one is dominated by Lawrence Brownlee
as Rinaldo, John Osborn as Goffredo and Barry Banks as Gernando.
All manage the difficult tessitura of their roles with unstrained
vocal security without erasing the name of a certain Peruvian
from the mind. Brownlee, whilst being pleasantly mellifluous
hasn’t quite got that ping at the top of his voice that
Juan Diego Florez essays with such clarity and ease. John Osborn’s
slightly husky tone rises superbly to the dramatic demands on
Goffredo whilst the somewhat diminutive Barry Banks as Gernando,
who feels robbed of his due in act one, matches both with his
easy top and good vocal characterisation before being killed
by Rinaldo; they say the best surprises come in small packages!
With an edge to his voice and secure singing and expression
he is a match for any of the other tenors. The good news is
that he re-emerges as Carlo in the final act alongside Kobie
Van Rensberg’s secure and well-portrayed Ubaldo. The scene
for these three coloratura tenors in the final act, surely unique
in all opera, is stunning in its realisation (DVD 2 CHs.20-21).
Mary Zimmerman's new production is full of slick coups including
a cupid with notices. Regrettably, given the resources at her
disposal, she misses too many tricks. Surely Armida’s
destruction of the Enchanted Garden at the conclusion of the
opera deserved an imaginative coup de théatre
rather than the mélange of mixed images that I could
see. The fixed set of a curved arcade with many entrances is
fine, but the Enchanted Garden left much to be desired. There
is a descent by Armida and Rinaldo from on high, albeit not
on a cloud.
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus respond well to
Riccardo Frizza’s secure beat and pacing. There is no
mention of which edition of the score is used. That at Pesaro
for the 1993 production was that of the Critical Edition edited
by Charles and Patricia Brauner for the Rossini Foundation.
The timing is similar to that in this performance albeit there
is more applause time here.
Robert J Farr