Review of Armida
We thank Charles Jernigan for this insightful review.
Be sure to read Prof. Jernigan’s opera journal at
FIVE TENORS, ONE GIRL AND A DESERT ISLAND:
ARMIDA COMES TO PESARO
The “big” opera at this year’s Rossini Opera Festival is Armida, one of the experimental serious works that Rossini composed for Naples’ San Carlo opera house. There are lots of Armidas in the history of opera–15 or 16 at least–beginning with Lully (1686) and ending with Judith Weir (2005), and along the way the story has attracted Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck, Haydn and Dvorak, besides Rossini. The tale comes from a section of Torquato Tasso’s monumental epic poem, Jerusalem Delivered, but in his day (1581) Tasso was only the latest poet to use the story of a beautiful enchantress who lures warriors to lassitude, dereliction of duty and worse. There are at least three versions of this topos in Homer’s Odyssey, including Calypso, the Sirens and Circe. Virgil humanizes the story with the Dido and Aeneas section of the Aeneid and in the Renaissance, Ariosto used a famous version in his Orlando furioso with Alcina as the witch-enchantress. After Tasso came Spenser in his epic The Faerie Queene. Homer’s Circe, who turns men into pigs (some would say she didn’t need magic for that feat) is the direct ancestress of the Alcinas, Armidas and Acrasias of poetic epic.
The more cynical Ariosto depicts his Alcina as an ugly witch who appears beautiful to the men she enchants, but the more romantic Tasso turns Armida into a really beautiful enchantress, and the author fell in love with his creation, making her convert to Christianity in the end, and thus saving her for a happy ending of sorts. The background of Jerusalem Delivered and Rossini’s opera is the First Crusade, with Christian warriors battling Moslems. Armida is a Moslem princess who comes to the Christian camp seeking ten paladins to help her, but it is a plot to destroy the Christians. Rinaldo, the chief Christian warrior, fights with and kills another Christian (Gernando) and is about to be taken prisoner for his act. But Armida, with her magic spell, deprives the Christians of their will to act and escapes with Rinaldo. In Act II, they come to Armida’s enchanted isle, in reality a place of horror which she turns into a ‘bower of bliss’ with her magic. Here she and Rinaldo live a life of luxury and love (depicted in the opera by an extensive ballet) until two Christian warriors arrive looking for their champion. They show Rinaldo what he has become by showing him his debased reflection in their shields, and overcoming Armida’s magic with a magic wand of their own, they take Rinaldo away and back to the war. Armida, abandoned, ends the opera calling for vengeance. She causes the magic island to collapse and is taken off by demons. We do not see her later conversion and the reconciliation related by Tasso.
At the time Rossini wrote Armida, he was falling in love with his prima donna, Isabella Colbran, the prima donna assoluta of the San Carlo theater and formerly the mistress of its impresario, Domenico Barbaja. Armida is the only woman among the singers (except for the chorus) and she is surrounded by a bevy of tenors: there are five tenor roles in the opera, all of them demanding in the extreme, but two can be doubled, and usually are. Thus two of the tenor roles appear only in Act I, and those singers can return in Act III to sing the roles of Carlo and Ubaldo, the warriors who come to rescue Rinaldo. There’s a bass too, but he is there mainly to provide a low voice in the ensembles. Rossini clearly structured the opera around the central role of Armida to give his new love a magnificent starring place in the work. She is the one who gets the grand arias, and she is in almost all the ensembles, although there is a unique and famous trio for three tenors in Act III.
Probably the reason why Armida is seldom revived is that necessity for five (or at least three) tenors who can sing difficult bel canto vocal lines–great tenors are a commodity in much demand–but the real necessity for this opera is obviously a charismatic and extraordinary singer for Armida herself. (Rinaldo, the main tenor in the work, does not even get an aria of his own; the focus is musically and structurally always on Armida.) Pesaro this year did find three amazing tenors for the five tenor roles, and a competent if not extraordinary Armida. Antonio Siragusa, a Pesaro regular, brought passion and passionate singing to Rinaldo, one of those high-flying Rossini tenor roles that requires amazing agility. The Russian tenor Dimitry Korchak, also a regular at Pesaro since 2004, sang the dual roles of Gernando and Carlo (Gernando, the warrior who quarrels with Rinaldo in Act I and is killed gets a full fledged scena with aria and virtuoso cabaletta in Act I and Carlo gets a tenor duet and a tenor trio in the last act). Korchak won great applause. Randall Bills, who hails from Fresno, California, was impressive in the dual roles of Goffredo, the leader of the Crusade, in Act I, and Ubaldo, the wielder of the magic wand in Act III. He too has an extensive solo in the first act and the tenor duet and tenor trio in the last one. He shone and was heartily applauded. The bass (also a dual role as Idraote in Act I and Astarotte in Act II) was the well know Carlo Lepore, wearing a dark costume with bat wings (he is a demon).
The Armida was Carmen Romeu, a Spanish soprano who started in Pesaro as a student with the Rossini Academy in 2011 and has graduated to important roles. She has not obtained very good press for her essaying of this role, and she was booed at the curtain call the first time we heard her and booed after her most famous aria (“D’amor il dolce impero”) the second time. Most assuredly, she did not deserve the boo’s. Her chief problem seems to be that she is not Maria Callas, who first sang the role in a famous revival in Florence in 1952 or Renee Fleming, who sang it here in Pesaro as an unknown, young soprano in 1992 (recordings of both performances exist). Romeu may not be an unparalleled singer like Callas or an exciting new find like Fleming, but she is quite competent and did more than just get through the role. Fleming tried it again, at the Met, rather late in her career, and I found her mannered and too careful in the extremely difficult coloratura. This performance, not without faults, was much more exciting than the Met’s production of a few seasons ago. The superb Bologna orchestra and chorus was under the direction of Carlo Rizzi.
The worst thing about the evening was the ballet which contained some of the most awful choreography since God invented dancing. The dancers were part of a company from Milan directed by Michele Abbondanza, a collaborator of the production’s director, Luca Ronconi. One could shut one’s eyes and listen to the beautiful ballet music, and I did the second time around. I suppose the dancers did what they were supposed to do, but it looked like bad dancing at a rock concert. Why not just get rappers to sing the opera if you are going to make classic ballet look like dancing to rap music?
The production itself has been much misunderstood, at least in the English language press. The famous Italian director Luca Ronconi took his inspiration from Sicilian puppet or marionette theater, a famous tradition which is cited by UNESCO as an intangible heritage. The Sicilian puppet theatre goes back to the Middle Ages, and the marionettes illustrate chivalric stories from the Roland epics (Orlando in Italian) and specifically from Jerusalem Delivered. Thus when the curtain went up, we had two tall ‘boxes’ containing marionettes dressed as crusaders, and the costumes of all the warriors were in that fantastic vein; the makeup was too: splotches of rouge on the cheeks, heavy eye makeup and drawn-on beards. Costumes consisted of bright, silvery breastplates and helmets with red plumes, red pantaloons and silver leggings and a wooden toy sword–something no crusader would be caught dead with, but typical of the marionette tradition. One can see the plays today in Sicily and see the scenes painted on bright carts in Palermo. There are even two museums (or more) dedicated to this important tradition. Some of the reviews I read, not understanding the inspiration, simply found it all “cheesy.” I thought it was charming. The sets were simple, much simpler than the originals at the San Carlo in 1817, but this is Italy in 2014, and the budget for the Festival has been cut to the bone. Anyway, there was no updating (Ronconi has been quoted as saying that updating an opera is already ‘old hat’) and no regie idea in sight, thank god. Take the opera for what it is, and if you don’t like it, go to Bayreuth and watch the crocodiles having sex while Siegfried and Brunnhilde sing their love duet. Or the white rats in Lohengrin. I’ll take my opera straight, thank you, and the food is better in Italy too.
Armida has wonderful music–I think it is one of Rossini’s best scores–and if this year’s Pesaro production was not absolutely thrilling, it was good enough to send the audience out of the theater happy and content. The performances here, by the way, have been totally sold out. It was almost impossible to come by a last minute ticket for Armida or any of the other opera performances, a harbinger, I hope, of some good news for opera companies in the future.