The composer Gioachino Rossini was never one to adhere closely to tradition in conceiving his operas, and his opera Armida is no exception. Armida, which has never been staged by New York's Metropolitan Opera, was staged for the first time in 2010 and recently encored as part of the Met: Live in HD series. It has been common for the Met to debut works in recent years that have eluded their stage, but they're more likely to debut works by composers like Rossini and Donizetti (last year's Maria Stuarda) than to truly expand their repertoire, into works of the twentieth century, for instance. Even though Rossini is well within a more conservative tradition to which the Met tends to adhere, his music often breaks the rules. Rossini loved to put odd numbers of a voice type (in Armida, there are six tenors). He also loved coloratura, the vocal technique of quickly rising up and down the scale, and rather than writing coloratura merely for dramatic sopranos, he wrote it for all voices, male and female, even basses. The title role, which is the rare lead Rossini role written for a full soprano (he preferred mezzos), is a pet project of one of soprano Renee Fleming, someone who the Met (understandably) goes out of their way to accommodate.
Rossini, aside from his operas Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, both among the most performed works in the repertory, is not frequently encountered in other complete operas, but rather in the amazing overtures that he composed for them. After seeing Armida, it is difficult to see why opera companies don't delve a little deeper into the Rossini's catalog. The story is set during the Crusades, as the Franks elect Rinaldo (tenor Lawrence Brownlee) as their leader, but he is tempted by the “exotic” princess Armida (Fleming), and when his valor is questioned by his comrade Gernando (tenor Barry Banks), Rinaldo kills him and uses Armida's magic to flee to her paradise-like kingdom. Once in the kingdom, the pair become Odysseus and Circe, with the beautiful temptress imprisoning the great warrior in a luxurious setting while he strays from his manly duty of fighting and conquest, a weakness he overcomes in the seemingly victorious end, though, in a relaxing change of pace from most dramatic operas, not everyone ends up dead by the end, but ends with Armida vowing to rise above her heartbreak and to make the lover who spurned her regret his decision. Musically, the opera features Rossini's signature vocal gymnastics, particularly in the second half, which features several duets between the two leads which are by turns poignant and thrilling. Additionally, the orchestral score features many of the flourishes which are reminiscent of the great overtures, such as the slow entry of different parts of the opera as the music rises to a crescendo and the tempo increases to gradually draw the audience in until it's enraptured.
The cast was very strong, and though I have often tried to resist the popularity of Renee Fleming, it's easy to understand why she has been one of the most popular draws in opera houses world wide for three decades. She has a great charisma on stage, and while her voice is not distinctive, her dramatic presence, her diction, and her technique are all first-rate, an extremely rare combination which goes to explain her sustained stardom. I was also especially impressed by Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo; I had not heard him (or even heard of him) before, but he has a beautiful, lyrical voice which will serve him well in future bel canto roles. However, I must say that he and Fleming did not match up well physically; Brownlee is simply too young-looking against the middle-aged Fleming; as a couple, they looked like more like a physical manifestation of the Marschallin and Octavian, the protagonists of another of the operas for which Fleming is best known, Der Rosenkavalier (though, of course, Octavian would be played by a woman in a real production of that opera.) It was highly confusing to see Barry Banks as both Rinaldo's rival Gernando, whom he kills in the first part, and his friend Carlo, who helps “rescue” him in the third act of the opera, though he was a particularly entertaining villain in the former role. The Met Orchestra was led by Maestro Riccardo Frizza, an energetic conductor whose love for Rossini shone through in the mostly light, but nevertheless brilliant score.
The production was directed by Mary Zimmerman, who introduced several bright colors into the visual scheme, especially in the form of blue prop palm trees which were quite memorable. She also added two non-speaking characters, one representing “Love” and the other representing “Fate.” Zimmerman brings them together at the end as Fleming is deciding whether to take revenge or forgive Rinaldo; they are a brilliantly clever representation of the proverbial angel and devil hovering above each of a person's shoulders, a very witty concept. The bizarre aspect of the production occurred around the introduction to Act Two, when the chorus, dressed up as creatures that appeared to be a hybrid of the musical Cats and the children's book Where the Wild Things Are, danced and sang around on stage. Fortunately, the music and performances will help to block this unfortunate choice from my memory.
photo credits: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera