Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Rossini's Armida and the Conflict between Duty and Pleasure

Rossini's 1817 opera Armida  is not widely staged these days--some would say with good reason.  Based on Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered (1581), it features Armida, a princess (who just happens to be a sorceress), and Rinaldo, a Christian knight, one of the Crusaders who have come to free the city.  What this means in casting is that there's one soprano and six tenors or basses, depending on who's available.  The plot is risible:  sorceress meets knight, sorceress enchants knight, carrying him off to a bower of bliss where they reiterate their undying love for each other; sorceress loses knight because two other knights rescue him from her spell, literally and symbolically, and the knight exits to fight the good fight.  Armida gets the last word, or rather aria, surrounded by the fiends she's unleashed from hell, and she's really, really mad.

Soprano Renee Fleming has made the role of Armida her own, and in 2010 the Metropolitan Opera staged it, including a Live in HD broadcast shown in movie theatres on May 1, 2010, that I wasn't able to see at the time.  Yesterday, I just happened to notice an announcement in the Ithaca Times that it was going to be re-broadcast for one performance at our local theatre chain.  I enjoy opera in general but don't know a lot about it.  I knew nothing about this opera.  Armida is not worthy of notice in Dent's still useful survey Opera (1940), and what he does say about the composer Rossini is less than inspiring:  "All the Italian operas of this period depended for their success on the singers. . . .  The school of which Rossini is the head achieved their popularity not merely by the florid and showy music which they composed for all the voices, for tenors and basses as well as for sopranos and contraltos, but very largely by the adoption into serious opera of methods hitherto restricted to musical comedy."  Then came the two lines that made me wonder whether it was worth seeing:  "What the general public has always wanted was to hear the greatest singers in the most trivial music.  Rossini had among his many gifts a genius for triviality."

Hmm, I thought, should I go or not?  My tastes in opera are not so austere that I'd fail to enjoy "a genius for triviality," other things being equal.  Rather than tossing a coin to decide, I suddenly recalled YouTube.  Sure enough, there were lots of film clips of Fleming singing the opera's final aria, and she was wonderful.  One I especially enjoyed and would recommend watching if you're at all interested has Fleming singing voice-over while Rossini's score flashes up on the screen.  So many notes, one is tempted to exclaim, and so close together!  Wow!  That did it:  off I went to take in the 2010 re-broadcast of Rossini's Armida.

Was it trivial?  Certainly, in one sense:  from Mary Zimmerman's production, no one would ever realize that the plot taken from Tasso embodies a Renaissance theme beloved by visual artists and neo-Platonic philosophers, the theme of Virtue Reconciled to Pleasure. As Edgar Wind pointed out in Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance (1958), the ultimate source for this topos was the myth about the adulterous love of Mars and Venus.  From their union came a daughter, Harmony.  Often, in fact, "harmony" was then viewed as the concord of otherwise discordant elements:  when they are in balance, love ensues; when they are not, strife and hate.  Painter after painter portrayed aspects of these opposing forces:  Botticelli's Mars and Venus, Raphael's The Dream of Scipio, and Veronese's Mars and Venus, to cite only three of the ones Wind discusses.  And in Antony and Cleopatra, even Shakespeare, popular dramatist though he was, includes aspects of this uneasy union.  None of this, as far as I could tell on one viewing, was ever recognized, let alone included, in this Met production.

Was it florid?  You bet.  Showy?  Except for the fiends encased in scaly body armor with long scaly tails, no, not really.  Lawrence Brownlee, who portrays Rinaldo, is a more than competent actor with a wonderful voice, rich and almost as agile as Fleming's.  Most of the opera was not showy (in fact, the ballet went on far too long), but when those two are on stage, which is the majority of the time, the music is spellbinding. 

Would I go again tonight if I could?  You better believe it.  To quote someone perhaps more attuned to the pleasures of the senses than Professor Dent, "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."

Bottom line?  A hit, a palpable hit.  It can be seen on your computer or iPad with Met Opera on Demand (http://www.metoperafamily.org/ondemand/index.aspx?icamp=mood&iloc=wllgbucket).

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