This recording has been available at various prices since being
recorded in 1991 and it is good to see it available again at
super-budget price on Brilliant Classics. Armida doesn’t
occur frequently in the record catalogues and this is one of
the best to be issued. Callas’s proposed studio sessions
in the 1950s didn’t happen, though there is a rather unsatisfactory
live recording in existence. More recently, Renee Fleming recorded
it at the Pesaro Festival in 1995. Sadly Gatti’s rather
sluggish tempi are a drawback. So we are drawn back to this
set, where Cecilia Gasdia is supported by three of the finest
Rossini tenors from the 1990s, Chris Merritt, Bruce Ford and
William Matteuzzi. Frankly, it's worth buying just for them.
Armida was Rossini’s third opera for Naples, coming
after Elizabetta, Regina di Inghilterra and Otello.
The subject matter was chosen by the impresario Barbaja in order
to show off the splendour of the Teatro San Carlo’s stage
machinery. The second act is an extended sequence set in Armida’s
infernal kingdom with ballet integrated into it in a manner
which is almost French. The title role was designed to show
off the powers of Naples’ reigning diva (and Barbaja’s
mistress), Isabella Colbran. She eventually became Rossini’s
mistress and her vocal decline would cause Rossini’s writing
for her to go through a simplification. In this opera she was
obviously still on form.
The casting ensures that the soprano is spotlit the role of
Armida being the only female role. She is surrounded by crusader
knights plus the magician Astarotte. This leads us into one
of the opera’s oddities, the famous six tenor roles which
the libretto specifies! Rossini and his librettist Schmidt were
not being cavalier; from the outset he had the singers doubling
roles. In fact, its construction assumed this.
In recent years, productions of Armida have appeared
at Garsington and at the Met, with the directors seemingly not
quite willing to take the opera’s plot at face value.
When you read through the synopsis this is understandable. The
piece could quite reasonably be described as scenes from Tasso’s
La Gerusalemma Liberata. Two of the knights, Goffredo
and Gernando, only appear in Act 1, with Goffredo dying at the
end of the act. Then in Act 2, Rinaldo is alone with Armida
in her kingdom, with no other knights. Finally in Act 3 an entirely
different pair of knights, Carlo and Ubaldo, appear to rescue
Rinaldo. From a dramatic point of view, you could miss out Act
2 entirely - though you would lose some wonderful music.
The role of Rinaldo was written for Andrea Nozzari, the tenor
who had created Otello. Nozzari had a heavier voice than the
other two Naples tenors; the role of Otello was successfully
recorded by Jose Carreras in his younger days. In fact Rinaldo
is a relatively passive character and it is the other two roles
Goffredo/Carlo and Gernando/Ubaldo who have most of the fireworks.
It has to be admitted that Cecilia Gasdia as Armida does not
have the most alluring of voices, but she has amazing presence
and style. Perhaps she is a little wayward at times but she
certainly knows her way round Rossinian fioriture and it is
pleasure to hear what is a strong voice moving with such facility.
Gasdia is no canary and gives the sorceress Armida a strong
persona, with some terrific fireworks in the finales to Acts
1 and 3.
She is well served by her three cavaliers, Merritt, Ford and
Matteuzzi. Each has quite a distinctive voice and you can distinguish
between them, which is necessary in such a tenor-laden piece.
Merritt at the top of his range does make the odd yelping noise
in act 1, but in the context of the difficulty of the work,
this is understandable. Later in the act, Ford gives a stunning
account of his aria Non soffriro l’offesa and then
all contribute to a fabulous finale.
In Act 2, Rossini lets his fantasy free and there are hints
of Romantic styles, with some fine love-music and a nice chorus
of nymphs and such-like. The act ends with another terrific
aria for Armida.
In Act 3 we come to the work’s most striking number, the
trio for the tenors, just about the only example of this in
the repertoire. Despite using a remarkable quantity of tenors
in his Neapolitan operas, Rossini did not use all three leads
together, perhaps due to personality clashes. Still, here we
have a stupendous example of Rossini’s art and Merritt,
Matteuzzi and Ford are in fine form.
Merritt makes a fine, quite muscular Rinaldo, a strong warrior
and an adequate if not luscious lover. Ford and Matteuzzi make
a nicely contrasting pair, with Matteuzzi’s beautifully
gleaming tone contrasting with Ford’s darker, softer-edged
voice. Matteuzzi is one of my favourite tenors in this repertoire,
with his lovely voice going all the way to the top; this light,
but gleaming facility in alt must reflect something of the original
style of these pieces.
Charles Workman is creditable in the small role of Eustazio,
with Ferruccio Furlanetto as the sole bass, a very necessary
component in Rossini’s ensembles.
I Solisti Veneti under Claudio Scimone make crisp and stylish
accompaniments. Scimone’s speeds are brisk but not rushed.
He keeps things moving nicely but giving space for the elaborate
The CD booklet includes an article with plot summary and track-listing.
The libretto is available for download from the Brilliant Classics
If you don’t have this recording already, then it is highly
desirable at Brilliant Classics’ prices. Armida
is perhaps not Rossini’s greatest opera but it contains
some fine things, not least opera’s only significant trio
for three tenors.