Rossini’s Armida from the Met HD Live

In 1581, when Torquato
Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata was published, it must have seemed
like a vindication of Roman Catholic culture in the wake of the Protestant
rift, perhaps even a vindication of Renaissance culture itself. Here was an
epic poem that set out to emulate and even rival Homer and Vergil, the success
of which almost justified its ambition; it was, moreover, an improvement on its
models in that it was a Christian epic, founded on the re-taking of Jerusalem,
albeit briefly, in the course of the First Crusade. True, Tasso peppered it all
with fictions and fancy, but gone were the burlesque gods and the improper
relationships of the Classical poets; uniting the many threads of plot was
Tasso’s vigorous and almost unabashedly sensual style. Tasso’s work
inspired similarly high-minded long poems from Ronsard, Lope de Vega, and many
another, but his influence went well beyond Catholic Europe to England’s
own Edmund Spenser and John Milton. It is fair to say that without
Tasso’s example, there would have been no Paradise Lost, for
better or worse.

The story of Armida, a Saracen sorceress in the employ of Satan, who tries
in vain to derail the Christian champion Rinaldo from his labors as a Crusader,
is only one of many episodes in the poem, and arguably, to modern eyes, not the
most interesting: we might well prefer, even as we scour the pages of Tasso for
something other than battle, the slight kickiness of Clorinda, a true woman
warrior for the “pagan” side, who is inadvertently killed by her
Christian boyfriend, but in a disturbingly fevered passage, is awarded a kiss,
baptism, and death within minutes (Monteverdi must have preferred her as well;
his depiction of the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is a crucial
warmup for his last two operas). Armida perhaps too transparently combines the
appeal of the rejected Dido, the magical Circe, and the vengeful Medea. Still,
her potency had charm, as well as foreknowledge that, like Clorinda, she would
be brought around to the “right” side just before dying, although
few composers and artists carried her story as far as that. The list of
composers who have taken her on is dazzling: to name Lully, Handel, Gluck,
Haydn, Vivaldi, Dvoř·k, and Rossini is to name only the most noted.

How much of Armida’s dangerous allure was left by Lully’s day,
much less by 1817, when Rossini’s opera on the subject premiered? It is
hard to imagine that Tasso’s poem was still required adult reading in
post-Napoleonic Catholic Europe, nor that the story of the self-destruction of
this strong woman evoked much more than the memory of a thrill.* What did Rossini see in this old tale?
His affection for strong women—Rosina, Isabella, Elisabetta—is not
hard to demonstrate; plus, Armida was his second pass at the material
of the First Crusade, although his Tancredi of 1813 is founded on
Voltaire’s play rather than Tasso’s epic. It is without question
that Armida was a showpiece for the Teatro San Carlo, and most
especially for the first Armida, Isabella Colbran, whose lifelong relationship
with Rossini had just begun: what we are to make of the character of the title
lady is even more puzzling today than it was in 1817, when the questions raised
by the Crusades burn hotter than ever.

Armida has not seen very frequent revivals, given the difficulty of
casting—Rossini’s heroine, here, must be at once a powerhouse, a
songbird, and a femme fatale, musically and dramatically; she is
surrounded and supported by six substantial tenor parts. A revival was staged
for Maria Callas in 1952, and there is a respected recording with Cecilia
Gasdia, as well as RenÈe Fleming’s 1993 outing in the role, at the time
of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro. It is rare for any opera house to have
six stalwart tenors at hand; even in the first production of 1817, the Naples
house made do with four, with a little shrewd doubling; the current Met
production, of which this DVD is a record, uses five.

In 2010, the Metropolitan Opera, at the urging of reigning diva, and current
American soprano sweetheart RenÈe Fleming, brought Armida back to the
stage under the direction of Mary Zimmerman, and the evidence is that Zimmerman
is as puzzled as the rest of us by the intentions of Rossini’s opera. It
has been Zimmerman’s custom, in opera, to throw a number of
non-correlated ideas at a piece, and hope that one of them feels right and
sticks—witness her disastrous Sonnambula for the Met a few years
ago. Was it a comedy or a love-song gone wrong? Which parts were we to
understand as authentically felt, and which mere play-acting, with winks and
sniggers to the audience? Zimmerman didn’t know then, and the result was
an unsatisfying night at the opera. Designer Richard Hudson’s unit set
for Armida is a semi-circle of doorways, like half of a giant dome:
picture-book palm trees, giant chrysanthemums, parrots, spiders, and foliage
fly in and out. Tasso’s doughty Christian paladins wear rather smart
ankle-length dress coats, while Armida herself opts for gowns that lie
somewhere between princess dresses and prom outfits. At the opening of the
second act, when the demons obedient to the sorceress rule the stage, the
legions of Hell resemble nothing so much as Maurice Sendak’s embraceable
beasts in Where the Wild Things Are, and then the hitherto-elusive
keynote of the production rises to the mind: camp. It would be good to know
whether this was Zimmerman and Hudson’s intention, or a product of their
uncertainty about the meaning of the piece.

Zimmerman’s fondness for a kind of specious variety, which merely
disguises a certain intellectual timidity, is exemplified by her treatment of
the nymphs Armida produces to sing and dance for Rinaldo, presumably to
reinforce her own erotic charms. Up to this point, nothing at all has been made
of Armida’s supposed Muslim faith—and this is just, since
throughout Renaissance iconography, Armida was nothing but a pinup
girl—but here, quite suddenly, Armida’s backup group is dressed in
matronly hijab, performing a kind of low-calorie version of Middle
Eastern dance. They are perhaps the least erotic nymphs released to DVD in a
generation—but moreover, why has Zimmerman imported the plainest sort of
Muslim garb for them at this point? Is Armida, then, a disobedient Muslim girl?
Or does her important work as a temptress and magician exempt her from local
religious custom? Also present in the mix are danced and mimed representations
of love and vengeance. Love, although iconographically a match for Cupid, is
plainly a young lady; Vengeance, an idea apparently Zimmerman’s own, is
something like a cross between a wrestler and a scorpion. Again, the ideas
don’t match. What is Cupid, male or female, doing among the matrons of
Riyadh, much less competing for Armida’s attention with a refugee a
Guillermo del Toro film?

One can hardly blame Zimmerman for trying to distance herself from
Armida’s problems for a contemporary audience, which compound
the problems of opera itself: all the heavy emoting; the exclamations of pride
and rage; the whimsy and fantasy; the unredeemed sexism and cultural
chauvinism. What does one do, after all, with that unwelcome background of the
Crusade? Are the paladins, seen with the hindsight of history, now to be
understood as the monsters? Are Idraote and Armida, their Muslim adversaries,
still wicked, or are they freedom fighters? Hudson and Zimmerman try
everything: Idraote is faintly pasha-like; the paladins blusterers, and Armida
is left with a kind of flatly naughty sexiness.

The trouble comes, however, in the third act, when Armida must evolve from
Circe to Dido to Medea in the space of fifteen minutes. After Zimmerman has
invited us to roll our eyes at all the ridiculous machinery of opera for more
than two hours, are we to believe in the sincerity of Armida’s love, and
condole her in the pain of her abandonment? Are we to experience the thrill of
fear when she swears vengeance? Or is it all Armida’s fakery; or
Rossini’s? Certainly Fleming herself seems to want us to believe that
Armida takes herself at face value throughout, but Zimmerman has rather
abandoned her in this production, and there is no moment when it seems clear to
the viewer that Armida’s calculation turns into passion: Fleming is
passionate, in her predictably winning way, about every moment as it passes.

Armida, as a vocal exercise, is a curious choice for Fleming at this stage
in her career. A sampling of her essay at the role in 1993 is revelatory. While
Fleming has never had a true Rossinian instrument, there was a focus and a
drive in her voice then that has since been replaced by a darker, more floral
sound that makes her such a fine Rusalka, ThaÔs, Arabella, and most of all, the
Countess in Strauss’ Capriccio. More and more, one can hear
intention rather than ease driving every roulade in her coloratura. Her leading
man here is as fine a Rossini singer as one could wish for, the phenomenal
Lawrence Brownlee, whose passage-work is consistently a marvel of ring,
clarity, and accuracy. Their duets—and the duets in Armida are
arguably Rossini’s finest, and perhaps the musical heart of the
work—are both musical and touching. It is a pity that Fleming did not
have such a Rinaldo at her side in 1993. Special note should be made of the
heroic labors of Barry Banks, doubling as Gernando and Carlo: Banks is a singer
of great verve and vigor, and rightly acclaimed both here and back in the
United Kingdom. Among the remaining singers—John Osborn as Goffredo,
Yeghishe Manucharyan as Eustazio, Peter Volpe as Armida’s wicked uncle
Idraote, Keith Miller as the imp Astarotte—only Kobie van Rensburg as
Ubaldo seemed underpowered. Graciela Daniele and Daniel Pelzig, despite being
trapped in the production’s odd concepts, have created a witty second act
ballet: Aaron Loux, as Rinaldo’s danced counterpart, is a pleasure to

The fortunes of Armida are a kind of template for the fortunes of
both Tasso and bel canto in our day. It is not easy to muster up a
fondness for the earnest morality and curious sensuality of the
Gerusalemme; the recursive wit and cynical fantasy of Tasso’s
great rival Ludovico Ariosto are more to our taste. Then, too, the stylized
forms and emotions of the Baroque, and the odd, tangled interior conflicts
their operas illustrate are somehow easier to manage than the candid grandeur
of the earlier nineteenth century. Full productions of Rossini’s serious
masterpieces (Maometto; Guillaume Tell) are few and far
between; Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda and Donizetti’s
Maria di Rohan, to name just two, have almost disappeared, while the
fortunes of Handel’s Orlando, Ariodante, and
Alcina, all based on Ariosto’s zany Orlando Furioso,
rise and rise. There is no shortage of singers equal to the demands of bel
, even given approaches as different as those of Fleming and Brownlee
here; what is lacking is a sense of how we want to approach these great works
in the contemporary context. Rossini’s Armida, and her sisters,
it seems, await a better day.

Graham Christian

* [Editor’s Note:
For a survey of “Orientalism” in contemporary fiction, see Reeva Spector Simon,
Spies and Holy Wars (Austin: Univ. Texas Press, 2010)

image_description=Decca 0440 074 3416 1
product_title=Gioacchino Rossini : Armida. (Libretto by Giovanni Schmidt, based on
Gerusalemme Liberata by Torquato Tasso.)
product_by=Goffredo: John Osbon; Eustazio: Yeghishe Manucharyan; Armida: RenÈe Fleming; Idraote: Peter Volpe; Gernando: Barry Banks; Rinaldo: Lawrence Brownlee; Astarotte: Keith Miller; Ubaldo: Kobie van Rensburg; Carlo: Barry Banks: Love: Teele Ude; Revenge: Isaac Scranton; Ballet Rinaldo: Aaron Loux. Conductor: Riccardo Frizza; Productoin: Mary Zimmerman; Set/Costume: Richard Hudson; Lighting: Brian MacDevitt; Choreographer: Graciela Daniele; Associate Choreographer: Daniel Pelzig.
product_id=Decca 0440 074 3416 1 [2DVDs]