Rossini composed Armida in 1817 to celebrate the reopening of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples which had been destroyed by fire the previous year. The opera was intended to be an impressive event that would feature all that the Neapolitan company had to offer. The orchestration was to be brilliant, the singing spectacular, and even the ballet would be featured prominently. Rossini certainly did not disappoint and produced an extravagant score... a score that must have seemed to be very avant guard at the time. Incidentally, the San Carlo was blessed with an abundance of tenors, so the opera contains no less than six prominent tenor roles. There is even a trio for three tenors in the final act that is a precursor to the "three tenor craze" of recent years.
That Neapolitan premiere had as it's focal point the San Carlo's prima donna the dramatic coloratura soprano extraordinaire and future Signora Rossini, Isabella Colbran in the title role. The celebrated tenor Giovanni David was featured in the leading tenor role of Rinaldo. So how does the MET version measure up in comparison?
Actually Renee Fleming is quite good even though she tends to slur some of the coloratura... and I think that is a function of her trying to fuse jazz style improvisation with the Bel Canto tradition of embellishment. Also, I wish the voice had more heft and power as it seems just a half size too small for the part. Perhaps I should have better tried to erase memories of Maria Callas who preformed the piece at the 1952 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, but even Joyce DiDonato in extensive excerpts on her recent Rossini CD proves to be stiff competition as well. Still, Fleming does herself proud, and in a role that is one of the most difficult that Rossini ever penned... Plus her voice sounds as lush, creamy, and sensuous as ever and that is an advantage in the three love duets that grace the score.
However, the real star of the show is Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo. My God the man can sing, and sing he does, and with a clarion tenor that has a pleasing quick vibrato that adds a sense of excitement to his vocal production. In the many occasions where the other tenors have to echo passages previously sung by him it becomes all too obvious that the others are merely pretenders to the throne and why Brownlee was chosen for the lead. Of the other tenors John Osborn is the standout... at times he can prove to be a bit inconsistent, but when he is on target as in this performance he is capable of being quite fine. Maestro Frizza has an unimpeachable Rossinian pedigree and certainly knows his way around the eroticism, brilliance, and even the demonic aspects of the score
As for the staging, I continue to be relatively unimpressed with Mary Zimmerman's productions at the MET all of which have made it to DVD. Personally I think she has not exactly proven to be an asset for the company with a Lucia di Lammermoor that was more a study in busy stage business than Donizetti's demented Scottish lass, and a downright ugly and ill-conceived La Sonnambula that seemed to be by Luigi Pirandello as opposed to Bellini. In Armida what should have been magical... turns out to be somewhat bizarre at times. Also, I do not like the fact that a good portion of the third act is played out in front of the show curtain in a very narrow and restricted area, and as such does not give an aura of being a professional production worthy of the MET. In addition, quite often she does not seem to trust the composer. For example, when Rossini writes a march, as in the opening scene, it is just that and solders are expected to march to the beat... not skip, bob, and weave thus making a mockery of and trivializing the basic musical ideas. Still the fundamental concept for the first two acts is quite pleasing visually in a clean-cut and vibrant manner even if the costumes and sets to not exactly reflect the location and era of the librettist's and composer's conception. Therefore the first and second acts... and especially the extended ballet... are the most successful portions of the staging and in spite of some fussy stage business that even somewhat impinges on Armida's big aria "D'amore al dolce impero". Also, Zimmerman has two mute figures representing love and revenge... the two conflicting aspects of Armida's character... popping up periodically throughout the production. It is only in the final scene where the ideas that they represent are depicted in pre-Wagnerian leitmotif fashion by Rossini that this makes total sense.
Still, I am grateful that this production has been made available. I doubt that it will be bettered in the near future... and Brownlee alone is more than worth the price of admission... plus Fleming does sing the title role as well as could be expected... plus there is no such thing as absolute perfection in this world. Still! Would that we had the Callas Armida from 1952 on film... or at least available in better sound! Actually in 1952 Callas was the as close to the perfect Armida as would be humanly possible, but unfortunately at that point in time there were absolutely no tenors who were capable of doing justice to Rossini's musical language. Given the circumstances, even the venerable Tullio Serafin who conducted that performance was forced to abandon any attempt at even approximating a true Rossini style. Today we have the tenors, but alas no Callas... It just does not seem fair...