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Rossini’s “Armida” Live from the Met

The Metropolitan Opera presents Rossini’s Armida with Renee Fleming and Lawrence Brownlee (and five other tenors!)  live in HD from the stage in New York, this Saturday May 1 at 1 PM. See it in Columbus at Crosswoods, Worthington or at the Lennox Cinemas. See also http://www.metopera.org for more information.

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Grand opera is neither for the shy nor the prissy (contrary to rumor).

Rossini as they saw him...

Rossini as they saw him...

Sorceresses seducing Christian warriors with lots of vocal fire-and more- were made for Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868).  Armida, completed in November, 1817,  is the 22nd of the 39 operas composed by Rossini between 1810 and 1829. It’s sobering to remember that although the composer lived to a ripe old age, dying rich and retired in the arms of his mistress in Paris, his active career lasted just under twenty years! Rossini was known to have suffered from gout and depression later in his life, leading Marilyn Horne, the outstanding interpreter of his music in recent years to opine, “Who knows what would have happened with a little lithium?”

Armida in 1817 saw Rossini back in Naples, where his operas Elisabetta (that would be Elizabeth I of England in a wild pageant ignorant of history) and Otello, the latter topped by Verdi generations later but Rossini’s version is not to be ignored (magnificent third act), were premiered. The roguish impresario Domenico Barbaja held sway in Naples and Rossini had affection for the old bandit. Barbaja had mentored the young composer and seen him on to a number of early successes, always pocketing the best share of the proceeds (impresarios died either very rich or very poor-no middle ground).  But Barbaja had quite the nose for talent, and he it was who brought Rossini together with the  prima donna Isabella Colbran, whom the composer bedded and eventually married–or was it the other way around?  No matter.

The fact is that Isabella Colbran (1785-1845) was known for her sensational

Isabella Colbran

Isabella Colbran

mezzo-soprano voice with a healthy respect for onstage operatic melodramma and a gift for fioratura.  Rossini in 1817-aged 25!-was considered the world’s finest operatic composer since the death of Mozart, ahead of both Beethoven and Cherubini-and was grudgingly admired by both of those composers.

The period between 1815-1820 saw the premieres of Il barbiere di siviglia, La gazza ladra, and La Cenerentola-three spirited comedies where Rossini could even be heard to compose laughter, and perfected his famous crescendo ensembles, where the entire company, usually in the midst of some potentially embarrassing-not fatal-chazerei would express mutual dismay and resolution with joking asides beginning with a whisper and ending with several bangs.

Armida, despite a few elements of the ridiculous,  is hardly a comedy. The source is Torquato Tasso’s poem of the crusades, Gerusalemme Liberata which in 1817 would have been familiar to the opera audiences from Handel’s Rinaldo, Haydn’s Armida and Gluck’s  Armide (Dvorak composed an Armida in 1904).

What’ s to resist? Tasso was widely admired in 1817–The story concerns the high-glam sorceress Armida, who goes about enchanting a retinue of knights during the crusades-they don’t say which one-spiriting them away to her enchanted island in a grand chariot drawn by rams-a device stolen by Wagner fifty years later for Fricka, the Queen of the Gods, who is a lot less fun than Armida. Her affections settle on Rinaldo, who is eventually rescued from her evil, enchanted, pagan clutches by his BFFs Carlo and Ubaldo. Pay attention: Armida requires a sexy dramatic soprano with a wide range and lots of coloratura. She needs the breath for Rossini’s exquisite long lines, the agility of his coloratura fireworks, lots of stamina, great presence and call me sexist but it helps if she’s a looker. If you’re going to go around seducing knights during the crusades it helps to have something in the va-va-voom department.

And the knights? They mix the love smitten (Rinaldo) the heroic (Goffredo) the faithful (Eustazio) the fiery (Gernando) and the loyal (Ubaldo and Carlo). That’s right. This opera requires six, count ‘em six tenors. (Off stage I’ll just bet they all act like bros with lots of high fives, while one waits for the other to choke mid the plentiful high Cs).  Rossini loved Madame Colbran as long as her voice held out, and he did love his tenors. Otello has four leading tenor roles-and some of his operas written for big voiced Italian mezzi en travesti were later reworked for tenors singing in French.

The Met premiered Armida just a few weeks ago. The May 1 Armida to be

Lawrence Brownlee

Lawrence Brownlee

seen in movie theaters across the world is the sixth of eight performances. Renee Fleming’s beauty and box office clout make her a natural in the tile role. No crusader is going to resist her and she can sing the bloody thing.  Our tenors are Lawrence Brownlee,  Barry Banks,  Kobie van Rensburg, Jose Manuel Zapata, Yegische Manucharyan and John Osborn.  Covering these roles is a sensational young tenor from OSU, loved by us all as Michael Szezniak and soon to be known to the world as Michele Angelini. Write his name down.

Rossini loved to self borrow and wasn’t above filching a good tune from elsewhere. One of the loveliest moments in Armida is the Act I ensemble beginning “Or che faro?” (What do I do now?) Any first year voice student plows through Tomasso Giordani’s exquisite little song, Caro mio ben

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Here’s what Rossini makes of this tune in Armida

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(Renee Fleming, Donald Kaasch, Carlo Bosi and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo)

Another great moment is the trio for tenors in Act III as Ubaldo and Carlo attempt to tear Rinaldo from Armida’s arms:

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(Gregory Kunde,  Bruce Fowler and Jorio Zennaro)

But no kidding, the biggest razzle dazzle in a an opera filled with forward momentum, allegri and long sweet vocal lines is the ultimate seduction, Armida’s aria in Act II, D’amor al dolce impero.  In 1952 Armida had its first production  in 100 years, in Florence, starring the 28 year old Maria maria-callas-as-armida-in-1952Callas,  fat, corseted and banana curled within an inch of her life. Who cared? That big, dark, troubled voice tossed off Armida as if it were a school yard rhyme:

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(Maria Callas, Florence May Festival, April 26, 1952, Tullio Serfain conducting)

Mary Zimmerman is the stage director for our May 1st Met extravaganza. She’s the delight of several and the despair of many, as she ignores the wishes of Donizetti and Bellini in previous Met outings (La sonnambula set in Manhattan’s Soho circa 2006 compete with cell phones) but the sets at least promise gargantuan butterflies and a feast for the eyes. Renee Fleming is very much a looker with a voice, if not always a temperament, to match. And then there are our tenors, led by Ohio’s Lawrence Brownlee, quickly making his name as a tenore di grazia par excellence.  The Met’s Armida promises to be a riot, in both good and controversial ways.  Don’t miss it!

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–Christopher Purdy

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