Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792 - 1868)
Armida (1817) [152.55]
Armida - Cecilia Gasdia (soprano)
Rinaldo - Chris Merritt (tenor)
Goffredo/Carlo - William Matteuzzi (tenor)
Gernando/Ubaldo - Bruce Ford (tenor)
Eustazio - Charles Workman (tenor)
Idraote/Astarotte - Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass)
I Solisti Veneti/Claudio Scimone
rec. 1991, Teatro Communale di Treviso, Italy
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94222 [76.10 + 76.45]
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 musical lines.
The CD booklet includes an article with plot summary and track-listing. The libretto is available for download from the Brilliant Classics web-site.
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.
Highly desirable … contains some fine things.