It was fun catching Armida, the never-before seen Rossini opera at the Met which we actually watched in the comfort of AMC River East theatre in Chicago. The opera, this premiere production by Mary Zimmerman which was specifically designed with Renee Fleming in mind, is rarely staged worldwide, in large part because it requires not two, but six bel canto tenors. Just imagine the casting nightmare! But, it was fun being able to watch and listen to all these tenors at the same time, and compare their voices against Fleming’s deliciously creamy voice.
I say, huge props to Met director Peter Gelb for going out on a limb and taking on all these risky new productions: Hamlet, Armida, etc. Rather than stick to the tried and true productions (which are still super enjoyable, don’t get me wrong), Gelb has been shown willing to push his audience out of their comfort zone. I guess he’s also trying to showcase these more avant-garde stuff concurrently with his strategy of reaching out to a broader – and hopefully younger – audience via live streaming in theatres throughout the world. It may be too early yet to tell if his vision succeeds, but I do certainly hope so. Not only have I been able to catch so many operas this season – and rarely performed productions at that – I have been able to enjoy them at really inexpensive prices. And it’s super fun to watch the shows in a movie theatre where I can break out my glasses of wine and cheese, rather than having to sit straight back next to a dolled up crotchety old lady in white fur (well I am still surrounded by these old ladies in the movie theatre, but at least they’re not wearing fur).
The review of Armida by the NYTimes:
A Crusade of Seduction and Sorcery
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: April 13, 2010
Renée Fleming has always made very particular and personal choices of operatic roles. Over the years, the managers of the Metropolitan Opera, fully appreciative of Ms. Fleming’s vocal artistry and star power, have been ready to accommodate her. The company has mounted house premiere productions of three strikingly diverse operas — Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” Bellini’s “Pirata” and Handel’s “Rodelinda” — specifically for Ms. Fleming.
Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo, who is ensnared by Armida, whom he later abandons. More Photos >
On Monday night the Met obliged Ms. Fleming with another house premiere, Rossini’s “Armida,” in a fanciful production by the director Mary Zimmerman. In requesting this fantastical, infrequently heard 1817 work, which, with two intermissions, lasted nearly four hours, Ms. Fleming was hardly playing it safe. Armida is an alluring, conniving sorceress, the niece of the cagey King of Damascus during the crusades. The role is a tour de force for a soprano who can combine alluring long-spun lyrical singing with dazzling, sometimes demonic, coloratura flights.
Moreover, the lead soprano dominates a cast that requires six Rossini tenors, a casting nightmare for any company. The Met lined them up, headed by Lawrence Brownlee in an assured and appealing performance as Rinaldo, a paladin whom Armida ensnares through a combination of her beauty and magic.
Still, this was Ms. Fleming’s show, and she was impressive over all. She first sang the role at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Italy, in 1993, a performance recorded live for a Sony release. In 1996 she triumphed as Armida in a concert performance with the Opera Orchestra of New York at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Eve Queler. The question on Monday night was whether at this stage in her career, Ms. Fleming still had the technical agility to dispatch Rossini’s formidable roulades and runs. She has never been a coloratura specialist.
But she has a comprehensive understanding of technique, and the particular qualities of her own voice. If her passagework lacked the spitfire intensity that some sopranos could bring to the music, she treated the runs and embellishments as decorative extensions of the vocal line.
Yet there was a cautious quality to her performance. Her voice, while radiant and creamy, especially in extended lyrical passages and the compelling spans of recitative, seldom soared into the house. Here was a major soprano in a risky venture, pulling it off with intelligence and taste, yet being careful all the way.
Only in the final scene, when the desperate Armida is deserted by Rinaldo, who awakens to his duties as a Christian knight, did Ms. Fleming take risks and sing with fierceness and abandon.
Actually, there was cautiousness in every element of the Met’s “Armida,” from Ms. Zimmerman’s handsome if somewhat safe production, to the stylish yet routine conducting of Riccardo Frizza.
Ms. Zimmerman had a lot at stake with this production. Her previous work at the Met was a modestly updated, rather unfocused staging of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” and, last season, a controversial take on Bellini’s “Sonnambula” that completely disregarded the story and invented a conceit in which a modern-day opera company is preparing a production of the Bellini work.
Ms. Zimmerman’s successful Broadway production of “Metamorphoses,” adapted from Ovid, a play she wrote and directed, was inventive, playful and yet profound. “Armida” suits the sensibilities she brought to bear in that work. And she had a sympathetic collaborator at the Met in Richard Hudson, who designed the sets and costumes.
The opera opens in an oasis in the desert outside Jerusalem. Here the stage is surrounded by stone-white walls through which we glimpse the spires of a temple. Peering down from the walls are two silent characters, embodiments of the two conflicting forces that drive the story and clash within the psyche of Armida: Love (a winsome young girl in a red dress with Cupid bow and arrows, played by Teele Ude), and Revenge (a hulking, bare-chested man with flowing pants, like Douglas Fairbanks in “The Thief of Baghdad,” played by Isaac Scranton).
The knights look splendid in their Crusader red gowns with shiny gold breastplates. The leaders of the paladins wear solemn, dark-hued, monkish robes. Armida arrives with a concocted story that she is the legitimate ruler of Damascus who has been deposed by a usurper, Idraote. Actually, Idraote (the stentorian bass Peter Volpe) is in on the plot to win the sympathy of the knights and infiltrate their ranks.
There are wonderful touches in the production. The serpents from the underworld who take cues from Armida look like devilish cat people from “Batman,” complete with coiling tails. When Armida transforms a forest grove into a magical pleasure palace, the smitten Rinaldo is attended to by a chorus of exotic Middle Eastern women.
But the tone of the production is often unclear. Is Ms. Zimmerman treating the work as a whimsical fairy tale? Or poking fun at it? Or milking it for theatricality? Ms. Fleming, from her arrival as a princess in gleaming white with a coterie of male servants, is too much the prima donna. Her magic spells call for real staging magic that never happens, and Armida’s ruthless ambition seldom comes through.
Only during a 15-minute ballet segment in Act II, delightfully choreographed by Graciela Daniele in her Met debut, does the production convey a clear attitude. A dancer (Aaron Loux, portraying Rinaldo), is fought over by forces of righteousness, serpentine devils and seductive women.
Vocally, the cast does the job. Mr. Brownlee has lost a great deal of weight and looks terrific. He sang with agility, elegance and Rossinian style, tossing off high notes and roulades. His voice lacked carrying power at times. Still, this was a winning performance for an increasingly important artist.
His fellow tenors, in smaller but crucial roles, fared well: John Osborn as Goffredo, a commander of the Christian forces; Yeghishe Manucharyan, as Eustazio, Goffredo’s brother; José Manuel Zapata, as Gernando, a paladin who, incensed at Rinaldo’s primacy, challenges him and dies in a duel. In Act III Kobie van Rensburg and Barry Banks, as two paladins who come to rescue Rinaldo from Armida’s clutches, joined Mr. Brownlee for a beautiful, wafting account of a deservedly famous trio for three tenors.
It has often taken Ms. Fleming a performance or two to settle into a demanding role when she sets a challenge for herself. She may gain confidence and take more risks as this run continues. But “Armida” belongs at the Met. And the company has the right star in place.