Gioacchino ROSSINI (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 Frizza
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 5.1 Surround
DECCA DVD 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
Stunning singing, but the production and sets miss a few tricks for Rossini’s most romantic opera.