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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868) Armida (1817)
Armida - Carmen Romeu
Rinaldo - Enea Scala
Gernando/Ubaldo - Robert McPherson
Goffredo/Carlo - Dario Schmunck
Idraote/Astarotte - Leonard Bernad
Eustazio - Adam Smith
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Opera Vlaanderen/Alberto Zedda
rec. November 2015 Opera Ghent
Video 16:9, Audio Stereo PCM 2.0, Region 0
Sung in Italian, Subtitles Italian, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean DYNAMIC 37763 [2 DVDs: 129 mins]
In addition to Rossini, the tale of Armida and Rinaldo has been set by Lully, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Brahms and Dvořák, to name only the famous composers. In other words, audiences used to know the plot as a matter of course. This is no longer true, so let me sum up this crusader story based upon Torquato Tasso's epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata: Armida, Queen of Damascus and a sorceress, enchants the crusading warrior Rinaldo, leading him to a life of sensuous pleasure away from the battlefield. With the help of his comrades, Rinaldo struggles to break the spell of his love and returns to his martial calling.
Rossini turned to the story in 1817, the year of La Cenerentola and La Gazza Ladra. He was himself bewitched at the time by the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran, his Armida and future wife. Armida is not a favorite Rossini opera, but it might well be, given its melodic richness, colorful orchestration and dazzling vocal writing. However, it is demanding to stage: one needs lots of tenors. There are six tenor parts, although one can make do with four singers by doubling roles, as in this recording, following Rossini’s example in the first performance in Naples.
Rossini invites spectacle with his exotic setting, elaborate dances and large cast. However, this production from the Flemish Opera goes in a different direction, downplaying the fantastic elements, or at least harnessing them rather tightly to the story. This results in a rather serious opera about gender and violence.
The opera has a misogynous aspect, warning of the dangers men face from love and domesticity. Here the story gains nuance by being told not only from Rinaldo’s perspective (how to free himself of this irresistible woman and her confining love), but also including Armida’s view. She is not primarily an enchantress, but a woman in love, and this woman does not want her man to run off to war with the guys. Armida begins as a seductress, but ends as an abandoned woman, as the production explores her failed effort at taming men and their violence.
Stage director Mariame Clément opens the opera not in a medieval encampment, but in a football stadium. Crusaders horsing around with a sex doll bring to mind the all-male environment. Costumes are mixed, with business-suited commanders and sword-wielding medieval knights. There is some musical cost to Clément’s focus on Armida’s tragedy. The frivolous but delicious ballet in Act II is not danced, and much of its music is cut. When Armida rails against her unfaithful lover at the end, she calls for destruction, but there is no flamboyant stagecraft to suggest a world toppled into disarray. The production does not quite turn Armida into a domestic drama, but downplaying the spectacle heightens the arc of the relationship between the lovers.
There is some fine singing on these discs. Spanish soprano Carmen Romeu begins the opera slinky and seductive, but by the end of the opera appears in a housewifely shirtwaist dress after she has set up housekeeping with Rinaldo. Her singing is both flashy and well-controlled throughout, including her Act II rondo. Rinaldo is sung by Italian tenor Enea Scala, who plays a brave, dashing but slightly thick hero. He has a ringing voice and good runs, making him an excellent match for his sorceress. In Act I, they are excited lovers who cannot keep their hand off each other, in a comic moment. In Act III, their parting sets the stage for a concluding duet, but it rather shockingly fails to develop, as Rinaldo will not join Armida in song. His companions-in-arms tell him to act like a man and just leave her. Armida is left with the bitterness of abandonment, as well as a great solo ending to the opera.
The recording has many marvelous moments. Those who know the opera may wonder about the famous trio of tenors in Act III, where Rinaldo’s mates persuade him to return to the war. It is glorious. Its unexpected sound of three fluid and resounding tenor voices makes it one of Rossini’s finest ensembles.
The orchestra plays with nuance, under the experienced baton of Alberto Zedda. Zedda died at the age of 89 earlier this year. I do not know if this is his final recording, but it is fine remembrance of a musician who provided decades of bel canto pleasure. One imagines that he had a hand in the pleasing da capo ornamentations.
The alternative DVD of Rossini’s Armida, from the Metropolitan opera, could not be more different. It is sillier and grander, striving for every last bit of spectacle. The orchestra is much better, as signaled from the outset in the overture’s wonderful horn duet. The Met gives us a confection, in which René Fleming is not a witch, but a great soprano dazzling her audience with a wonderful bel canto role. The opera opens with an acrobat, to put the audience on notice that the circus has come to town. The ballet is performed, uncut, by dancers with plates of fruit on their heads. It is great fun, marvelously done. See Robert J. Farr’s review.
Yet this smaller scale version from Flanders, despite its ballet cuts and directorial modernization of the story, succeeds in drawing me in to the opera instead of distancing me from it. If you do not know Rossini’s Armida, either version offers fine singing and much pleasure. If you are a serious Rossinian, you may need both.