Armida, Metropolitan Opera live relay, April 2010

Rossini composed Armida shortly after returning to Naples from great success at La Scala in Milan. That was where, following his new opera La Cenerentola in Rome, he created La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) for the more sophisticated Milanese audience, and they loved it. Rossini could do no wrong, and arriving in Naples in August he found a new libretto waiting for him. Chosen by the reigning impresario Domenico Barbaia, who ran the newly rebuilt Teatro San Carlo, it was a rather fantastical work, not ideally suited to the composer’s tastes. Nevertheless he set to work with unusual conscientiousness, preparing a great soprano role for the company’s prima donna, Isabella Colbran, darling of the Neapolitan public, favourite of the king of Naples, and mistress of Barbaia. He experimented with new harmonies and modulations, but as Francis Toye has written, “he might have spared himself the trouble, for the Neapolitan critics judged the result to be ‘too German’, too learned altogether, disappointingly devoid of spontaneity. Nobody seems to have traced the responsibility to . . . its real cause — the incompetence of the librettist, a certain Schmitt”. This was Giovanni Schmitt, who based his work on the epic poem, La Gerusalemme liberata published in 1581 by Torquato Tasso, telling a fictionalised account of the first Crusade.

Renée Fleming as Armida with the knights in Act I, photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Armida herself is a sorceress whose seductiveness creates confusion and divisiveness between the knights when she enters their encampment. She persuades a group of knights to leave with her to recover her lost kingdom, and in the original story turns them into animals, like Circe in Homer’s Odyssey. She intends to kill the leading knight, Rinaldo, but falls in love with him, and in the opera he alone escapes with her, after killing one of the other knights. They enter her magic realm and sing of their love for one another, but this comes to an end in Act III when two knights, Carlo and Ubaldo find their way into Armida’s magical garden to bring Rinaldo back to his military role. When they show him his new effeminacy reflected in a shield, he feels ashamed and is persuaded to regain his mettle and flee with them. Armida tries to restrain him, but loses. She is then faced with a choice between two figures, Love and Revenge. She chooses the latter, destroys her pleasure palace, and flies off in a rage.

Renée Fleming and Lawrence Brownlee in Act II, photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

This bel-canto opera needs a really first-rate soprano, and Maria Callas sang the title role in a 1952 revival. Renée Fleming performed it in 1993 at the Rossini festival in Pesaro, and again in this new production for the Met. She sings here with consummate skill and brilliant characterisation, very ably supported by Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo. The knights Carlo and Ubaldo who rescue Rinaldo from Armida’s clutches were well sung by Barry Banks and Kobie van Rensburg, and the former also sang strongly as a knight named Gernando whom Rinaldo killed in a duel in Act I. John Osborn sang the role of Goffredo, a knight who persuades the company to support Armida, and Keith Miller gave an admirable portrayal of Astarotte, the prince of darkness in Armida’s realm.

Act III, photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The production by Mary Zimmerman, with set and costume designs by Richard Hudson, shows Rossini’s original three act version, complete with a ballet in Act II. There is plenty of choreography in one form and another, along with frequent reappearances of the two characters Revenge and Love, the former portrayed by a tattooed man with a fine physique, and the latter as a girl in red dress. As often the case in relatively early operas these days, the sets showed clean lines and bright colours. I’m delighted the Met has broadcast this fine production of a little-known opera, conducted here by Riccardo Frizza, and I only wish their information sheets contained a more complete cast list. For example in this opera, Keith Miller who sang the bass role of Astarotte, and was interviewed by Deborah Voigt in the second intermission, was not listed.

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