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Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Armida (1783)
Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo) - Armida
Christoph Prégardien (tenor) - Rinaldo
Patricia Petibon (soprano) - Zelmira
Oliver Widmer (baritone) - Idreno
Scot Weir (tenor) - Ubaldo
Markus Schäfer (tenor) - Clotarco
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. live, Musikverein, Vienna, June 2000
DAS ALTE WERK 2564 66047-1 [54:34 + 74:30]

Armida was the last opera that Haydn composed for Esterháza and it was his first full-scale serious contender in the genre. Both orchestrally and vocally it is extremely impressive, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Vienna recording was widely praised when it first appeared back in 2001. It now reappears in a most welcome form as a super-budget release from Das Alte Werk.
When this set was first released Harnoncourt’s image shared the front cover with Bartoli’s, leaving the potential buyer in no doubt as to the main attraction. She remains the finest thing about this set, and Armida brings out the best in her as a performer. Her tone is ravishingly beautiful when it needs to be - you need go no further than her first aria, a gorgeous prayer for Rinaldo, to find evidence of that - but when she is required to turn on the vocal fireworks, as for Armida’s great aria of fury in Act 2, she does so with thrilling precision and passion. She is at her finest in the final act when Armida’s power is on the wane, heartbreaking in the great aria Ah, non ferir, then spitting fury as she goes off to exact her revenge.
Patricia Petibon gives Bartoli a real run for her money as the second lady. The voice is of a very different quality to Bartoli’s - sweeter and more innocent, less knowing - but it is every bit as delicious, from the gently winsome quality of her first aria to the intentionally strident and very impressive hysterics of her aria at the beginning of Act 2. She also makes a most beguiling nymph in the third act.
The men, as a whole, are less impressive. Prégardien, most damagingly, is not quite himself, and not the singer of such grace and beauty that we know today. He sounds uncomfortable, and even a touch raw in his opening aria, and throughout the opera his voice sounds occluded and even a touch nasal rather than its usual, open, confident self. Even his great final aria, Dei pietosi, sounds bit off kilter.

When he and Bartoli come together, however, things improve enormously, and their Act 1 duet, when he tries to convince her of his faithfulness, is a real treat, both beautiful in its opening section and then exhilarating in its coloratura. Markus Schäfer gives a very attractive turn as Clotarco and Scot Weir’s Ubaldo is fine. Oliver Widmer’s Idreno is not pleasant, though, sounding disagreeably unfocused in his opening aria with little improvement later.
I’m not normally a fan of Harnoncourt in music of this period - I find his Mozart infuriating - and generally I find Concentus Musicus Wien to be so abrasive as to be devoid of pleasure in much of their playing. However, I actually found their style to be pretty effective here. It is a martial opera, after all, and the harsh edge on the brass, as well as in some of the other orchestral tuttis, helps to evoke the atmosphere of war. The string playing doesn’t always sound thin and pinched, either, and they are the finest thing about the scene in Act 2 where Rinaldo’s indecision is invested with the intensity of a mad scene.
Harnoncourt does occasionally pull the tempo around a bit, as though he can’t quite help himself, but he still shapes the work with conviction, and it’s worth remembering that this was a rather neglected opera when this performance took place, so he probably felt the need to inject a certain something into his interpretation so as to make contemporary audiences sit up and take notice that little bit more. I can turn a blind eye to most of it if it means being reacquainted with Haydn’s music in such a successful way. The corking Trio that ends the second act is completely thrilling, bringing out the finest dramatic instincts of the singers, orchestra and conductor.
Both CDs are ingeniously packaged in a single case and the booklet contains an interesting essay by David Wyn Jones. Mercifully, texts and translations are provded online (here). At a price like this there is no need to hesitate.
Simon Thompson