An account of the February 18, 2011 performance of Armida at the Metropolitan Opera from the Unbiased Opinionator.
* Notes *
The tale of Armida, derived from an 16th Century epic poem by Tasso, has inspired composers from Lully and Händel to Dvořák and the contemporary British composer Judith Weir. The story of the crusader Rinaldo, tricked into love by the sorceress Armida, was also the source for an impressive cantata for men's voices by Brahms.
Rossini's version was composed during a fruitful period in Naples, in which he was assured of the best soloists, chorus and orchestra available at the time. In Armida, he had the luxury of writing for an unusual cast that includes seven tenors. The title role is among the most virtuosic and demanding in the entire dramatic coloratura repertory.
The Metropolitan's production was created by Mary Zimmerman for the 2010 season. Ranging from a painted stage curtain reminiscent of Titian, to Armida's infernal realm with a coffered dome in the style of the Pantheon (complete with an incongruous, huge black spider), to fantasy palm trees bathed in the rich color palette of the post-impressionist Henri Rousseau, the set design was striking.
John Osborn's sang the role of Goffredo, with its stratospheric high notes and demanding coloratura, most impressively, setting a high bar for the evening. The remaining secondary tenor roles were well cast.
The true hero of the evening, both dramatically and vocally, was the Rinaldo of Lawrence Brownlee. He sang with astonishing agility and a rich and varied range of vocal color. Compounding the difficulties of the role are the large ensembles, which require enormous stamina. Brownlee met these challenges with an ease of vocal delivery that was jaw-dropping. All the while scaling height after technical height, he managed to convey the expressive humanity of Rinaldo himself -- a transcendent achievement.
The Met's production of Armida was mounted for Renée Fleming. In the 1996 concert version given by the Opera Orchestra of New York, conducted by Eve Queler, this reviewer experienced Ms. Fleming's triumphantly fiery delivery at a time when the soprano had begun to shed her nice girl image and had started applying the "diva dust" required to sell this role.
While the intervening 15 years have brought Ms. Fleming many triumphs on the great stages of the world, they have not been kind to her in this impossibly challenging repertory. The artist sounded indisposed. Her singing was characterized by a pallid top, labored coloratura and a lack of vocal presence that bordered on inaudibility. The breathy attacks and scooping that have become a Fleming trademark seemed only to further undermine her technique. One hopes for happier moments in her upcoming performance as the Countess in Strauss's Capriccio, repertory in which this fine artist continues to excel.
Graciela Daniele's choreography, marvelously executed by the Met corps de ballet, featured a solo dance role Rinaldo performed with bravura by Eric Otto. The solo instrumental contributions, especially those of concert master David Chan, cellist Rafael Figueroa and principal harpist Deborah Hoffman, were masterful.
* Tattling *
Absent a stellar singer in the title role, Rossini's Armida is a very long evening, and the audience thinned noticeably after both intermissions.