Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Like most literate English-speaking people, and probably most Italians too, I've never read Torquato Tasso's unwieldy epic Gerusalemme liberata ("Jerusalem Delivered"). I've seen plenty of artworks referring to it and am familiar with Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the best known of the many operas and musical works stemming from Tasso. The Tancredi and Clorinda story was the subject of a ballet, The Duel, by William Dollar. The late, great Melissa Hayden had a personal success in it in the earlier days of New York City Ballet. It was also known by its French title, Le Combat, when presented by Roland Petit's company. Here's a relatively recent excerpt performed by New York Theatre Ballet:

Michel Fokine was inspired to create Le Pavillon d'Armide by Alexandre Benois, who was interested in a painting depicting Rinaldo and Armida. Armida herself really got around in the world of the arts.

Which brings us to Rossini's Armida, presented for the very first time in its history by our own Metropolitan Opera.The work premiered in Naples in 1817. According the program notes by the redoubtable Rossini maven Philip Gossett, the twenty-five-year-old Rossini was provided with all possible advantages: first-rate orchestra and chorus, ample rehearsal time, and the finest soloists of the day. Among these was the young composer's inamorata and, later, wife, Isabella Colbran. For Colbran, he composed the demanding title role. Hearing the beautiful and expert Renée Fleming tackle this and almost, but not quite, nail it, made me think of the conditions under which singers of the early 19th century worked. Mainly, the theaters were considerably smaller. I haven't been in Naples's San Carlo, but La Scala and London's Royal Opera House, while good-sized, are not enormous caverns like our Met. Thus the fiorature, requiring filigree delicacy and yet a certain power, could probably be delivered more easily in those theaters. Furthermore, verismo had not developed, and Wagner and Strauss were yet to come. The singers were used to employing their vocal techniques in a manner different from what would be required later.

Thus, everyone, including the six tenors in this interesting cast, was a modern singer who had indeed studied earlier techniques and in some cases, such as that of the endearing and sweet-toned Lawrence Brownlee, specialized in the Rossini rep. Nevertheless, changes in musical styles as well as the gigantic size of the Met, worked against the pinpoint accuracy required (we imagine, since we've heard very little of it) of Rossini singing. We heard an approximation of what Rossini may have had in mind.

Something unforeseen in a thoroughly Italian opera was the elaborate ballet that occupies most of the second of the opera's three acts. French theaters expected this, but I didn't think it was the case for Italy. So this was an anomaly. I did not think that the ballet, as is usually the case with opera ballets, was a success. In fact, I found it downright ugly. I'm still trying to decide what style of choreography and presentation would have worked in its place.

Richard (The Lion King) Hudson's sets and costumes were imaginative and mostly beautiful. I am a fool for imaginative bugs and birds, and Armida's enchanted garden, conjured up through her sorcery, had a delightful dragonfly, red beetle, and macaw among other captivating creatures.

The opera ends with Armida, defeated by the Crusaders, raging at her loss. I thought it might be something like Medea, also a sorceress, riding away in her chariot drawn by dragons. Not quite; Armida didn't seem furious enough. A bit of online sleuthing reveals that, following the action depicted in the opera, Armida abjures her rough magic, becomes a Christian, and marries her beloved Rinaldo.

No comments: