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Dear friends and readers,

This posting probably belongs more on Jim and Ellen have a blog, two, where I've been writing about the operas transmitted by HD to our local movie theater live from the Met.  But I have no photos or stills from the opera beyond conventional promotional stills -- and on that blog I try for significant pictures.  It is also a woman-centered, tragedy-she-queen story (in 18th century terms), swirling around a sorceress so it may fit in amid blogs on women artists (with Austen and Dickinson my muses) and female mythic types. I have written here about Britten's sympathetic take on the governess in James's Turn of the Screw and Britten's (astonishingly) feminist Rape of Lucretia.

So, on Saturday afternoon, the admiral, I, and Izzy went to see Rossini's Armida live at the Met through the magic of HD transmission into movie houses around the US (and globe too). I enjoyed it very much, especially the second and third acts. While it's not the greatest opera ever written and not all that moving when it's supposed to be, it is so well-done that it's almost great, reaches nearly magnificence at key points of the soprano (Renee Fleming) as a powerful sorceress, has stunning ballets, and much of interest to anyone interested in the 18th century especially.



Renee as sorceress amid snake men

This might seem paradoxical. After all Rossini? 1816. But the opera did seem the last gasp of 18th century motifs, of a Handelian opera. First of all the source story: Armida from Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, a very popular story throughout the Renaissance and into the later 18th century. Armida as an opera was done over and over again in the 1770s. It appears to have died a sudden death in 1816 and was not re-staged until our own time.

As performed in the Met version, the paradigm is a classical one: Rinaldo in type is a kind of Aeneas who has to abjure love and sex with his beloved Dido; and the closing scene of the opera at moments reminded me of the situation at the close of Purcell's and the poignant aria, "Remember me". The difference is striking too: Rinaldo is not stiff, and does not just walk off like some prig (as Aeneas does in Purcell's opera -- granted it's a thankless role "the hero" does this and that), but succumbs, falls to pieces, looks distressed and wants to stay with his beloved; feels hurt and distressed, indeed is presented as having impulses which are "unmanly" (maybe why this paradigm died once this was seen). 



Armida (Renee Fleming) and Rinaldo (Laurence Brownlow): he cannot act and she can, but then again it's mythic

He is also the person between Vice and Virtue, with Armida playing Vice and two soldiers who come to urge Rinaldo out of the bower playing Virtue. The production also used the allegorical figures of the text so we had a ballerina who danced and stood for erotic enthrallment within Armida and a fierce male dancer who stood for Hatred and Revenge within Rinaldo and also Armida. (In the first act one of the Frankish soldiers is jealous of Rinaldo and Hatred appears; then there is a duel and Hatred stands for Rinaldo's inner self.)

Armida is presented very sympathetically too -- like Gluck's Armida (about which see in the comments). The arias Fleming sang were just gorgeous, beautiful, lilting, and playful, and her duets with Laurence Brownlee (tenor, and he's now lost weight so he can look the part better) were entrancing. She really loves the hero and uses her magic to hold onto to him.  This is Renee Fleming's project and she matters, Ellen (Renee Fleming fan, I own CDS of her singing Strauss's last songs and other Strauss too and next year she'll be in Strauss's Capriccio)

The production was simple and let the story speak for itself. Some of the psychology in the words (surtitles are important here) revealed a way of articualting the conflicts very like Restoration dramas. Duty and Honor versus love. In a way this did at moments make for tedium, especially at the opening of the opera which was also confusing. The librettist omitted a segment from Tasso which shoudl have been part of Act 1. Armida wants Frankish soldiers to help her fight Muslims; in the poem she is a Muslim princess and when she gets them, she captures them. In the opera, she wants Frankish soldiers, but then when Rinaldo appears, she seems to forget all about this aim and just want to take Rinaldo away to her bower after Rinaldo kills his rival. This is done for concision but it's a little confusing why we have this Act I about Frankish soldiers and the fuss and then it's all dropped.

But once we get to the love affair and the coyness and paraade some of the ceremonial gestures which just don't go over any more, the opera becomes alive. At the close of Act 1 Fleming as Armida is all powerful in a magnicent gesture in her wonderful white outfit; at the close of Act III (end of opera) she stops wailing (like Jacques Brel in his famous "ne me quitte pas") and turns into a sorceress vowing revenge, all in black. The final tableau is fierce.

Also very good were the ballets. We had male ballerinas in women's dress up on toes, and they were very athletic. Lots of subtle depictions of sexually transgressive tastes in the ballets at the bower, plus you ee men overcome by women in the chorus. It's a scary place for men, Armida's bower. There were two long dances, with the outfits of the men and women remarkably animal like. The Met this season has tried hard to appeal to modern tastess using Broadway and other pop theatre primitivism. One deep voiced man (Bass?) had to dance as well as sing and he was interviewed on the difficulty of this.

I like the interviews each time because in the midst of all the coos and laddled on flattery, you learn something about the attitudes of the singers and other people on the stage. I enjoy specially the cameras behind the curtain, on the stage, showing the scenery changing and the people movning.  We got to see close up (due to the fantastic equipment controolled from some caravan in a back street) all the sculptured insects, birds, and animals made for the bower. One mechanical insect walked along and the audience did see that for
they tittered.

It was playful and self-conscious too.  A not-so-small pleasure is observing the distance between this opera and say Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered.  This is an adaptation -- or maybe we should call it an appropriation. The changes between the source text and this build-up of fragments from it are fascinating. I mentioned that Rinaldo and Armida are a kind of Dido and Aeneas; she is also a tragedy-she-queen, and all very different from the presentation of the enchantress-type in her bower that you find in the early modern period (Shakespeare's Titania, in Spenser's poem). And then to see how it's done for an audience in 2010 is another angle or facet -- the ballet for example, the mechanical stuff for birds and insects and flowers in the bower and so on.

I recommend going to see it; it's not going away, money was spent  and it has garnered good reviews, so it will be around for some time.  For women viewers the interest is in its woman-centered version of Tasso's huge epic, the presentation of this sorceress as a Dido figure or she-tragedy queen (18th century style), and the transgressively sexual ballets.

Ellen

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
misssylviadrake
May. 4th, 2010 12:06 am (UTC)
Laurence Brownlow
From C18-l:

"I saw it also, and although the opera dates from 1816, it is more of an 18C work in feel and format. It's less forward-looking than Beethoven's 'Fidelio,' for example, which predates it by a couple of years. The plot is based on selected scenes from Tasso, but unfortunately the libretto is quite fragmented and episodic; I'm even now hard pressed to clarify how all of Act I's events related to Acts II and III. That said, it's full of beautiful music, particularly Armida's theme-and-variations aria "D'amore al dolce impero," the amazing trio for three tenors in Act III, and Armida's hyper-dramatic final lament and madness.

For my money it was Lawrence Brownlee's show. His vocalism was specatcular-he made Rinaldo's fiendishly difficult vocal line sound not only easy to sing but fun, and he did so with a consistently beautiful tone. Fleming was good, but she wasn't really ideal from a purely vocal perspective. She is such a canny singer that you might not notice the smudged coloratura and edgy high notes, but they were there. She sang this role in Pesaro back in 1993, and the recording made from that run shows her much more comfortable with the music and displaying more youthful verve as well.

Mary Zimmerman's production was a delight and did a good job of making a complicated story line somewhat more streamlined. It doesn't reference the 18C much, but abstracts the plot details into visually arresting tableaus.

The Met re-broadcasts this, I think, on Wednesday, and if people are interested they should definitely see it.

Michael Yonan"
misssylviadrake
May. 4th, 2010 12:06 am (UTC)
Encore
Actually, the "encore" of Armida is Wednesday, May 19--plenty of time for folks to clear their calendars to enjoy this wonderful production.

Tom Dillingham
misssylviadrake
May. 4th, 2010 12:13 pm (UTC)
An adaptation
I thought I'd add that a not-so-small pleasure is observing the distance between this opera and say Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered. This is an adaptation -- or maybe we should call it an appropriation. The changes between the source text and this build-up of fragments from it are fascinating. I mentioned that Rinaldo and Armida are a kind of Dido and Aeneas; she is also a tragedy-she-queen, and all very different from the presentation of the enchantress-type in her bower that you find in the early modern period (Shakespeare's Titania, in Spenser's poem).

And then to see how it's done for an audience in 2010 is another angle or facet -- the ballet for example, the mechanical stuff for birds and insects and flowers in the bower and so on.

We talk a lot of film adaptations from novels; just as interesting are operas which are often adaptations from literary texts too.

Ellen
misssylviadrake
May. 4th, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)
On Gluck's Armide
From February 2010:

Last night Jim, I and Izzy, went to a concert performance of Gluck's Armide at the Kennedy Center done by Opera Lafayette. I had gone to a good lecture by Ryan Brown, the heart, soul, instigator of it all: his speciality is baroque opera. He shows how Racinian is the conception and how the verse lines are intensely about passionate. The action is all psychological. My husband and daughter appeared to love the music, and it did sound beautiful to me.

Here on wikipedia is information about this opera, based an a Lully libretto redone, and originally from Tasso. It's revealing that the original work, Tasso's, Reformation Catholicism dwells on the delivery of Jerusalem, the first crusade, but just about all adaptations take this pagan-like substory for their central text:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armide_(Gluck)

I am not the music lover my husband and daughter are so, frankly (as Rhett would say), for me it's real function was to bring home how hierarchical and intensely formal (and snobbish) was court life at the time. Gluck's opera shows its origins as court entertainments at every point. The audience appeared to love it -- I'm afraid I see this as a sorry sign of our times. Too artificial for me. I wish they had done it naturalistically. Instead it was super-artificial including some dancing that was superstylized. At moments the audience tittered and that was worse -- as after all how the characters took one another so seriously has its value.

The best moments for me were La Haine, the woman who played it was very good. Not that it isn't a sad story: the powerful witch is turned into another victim heroine, compenstory victimhood and iconography on display once again.

In its time, this was a subversive (for the passion) and not successful opera. So it's not always the more things change ...

Anyone ever seen Gluck? I am a lover of Racine's verse and have read his plays with intense reactions. He is still a presence in Les Liaisons Dangereuses by which I mean the interactive intense conceptions.

Ellen


Edited at 2010-05-04 08:56 pm (UTC)
misssylviadrake
May. 4th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
Gluck's Armide (2)
Nick responded to my comments on the political functioning of such a court piece:

"Ahh it was Gluck - I don't know the opera but have to admit that I have never been able to 'get on' with Baroque opera (I think that is what it is?). Indeed I can't really get on with any music before Mozart (well yes I love the Messiah and am ok with some Haydn) - of course this is because I am really profoundly unmusical! ... I wholly agree about the whole Court entertainment thing. And this is miles from the kind of radicalism which I love in opera - of course it is not programmatic leftism but in different ways Mozart, Verdi, Puccini etc. can all be radical. Sometimes this is really watered down but good productions bring it out. Tosca is a stunning example of this - I mean that really is a radical piece if done properly; freedom fighters, torturers etc.. Somehow this often gets lost. It is ironic that an art form which treats of these things is so seen as a preserve of the ruling class and the rich - as a novel it would almost be agitprop."

It does seem as if the story of Armide was superpopular. From the later 17th century when it took the boards with Lully's Racinian script it was done again and again, sometime a new one every year, and then with Rossini in 1817, that was the end. No more after that.

It's the Dido story really: powerful woman succumbs to love and lover removed by men who reminds him of his duty and need to reject transgressive woman. It's more than the usual compensatory glamorous victimology (as in Mary Stuart and other queen victim tragic figures) because she is seen as once powerful.

Then it dies suddenly. Victorian views of women taking over? We find it again in Dvorjak as a nationalistic reading. She is not seen as upper class heroine appealing across eras and countries to flatter the small elite crowds in this later opera the way she is in the 18th century.

misssylviadrake
May. 5th, 2010 03:45 am (UTC)
Adaptation
"Hello, Ellen--I was interested in your comments about Armida, which I am obliged to see when the Encore HD occurs. I listened to the webcast of opening night, however, and enjoyed the music a great deal.

As it happens, I have been teaching courses in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute here in Columbia, including one earlier called "Myth Plus Music = Opera" and next month will be following up with "Fairy Tales in Opera". I use DVDs of performances to illustrate the ways operas (including very contemporary productions) adapt and re-conceive the familiar stories--of Orpheus and Oedipus, primarily, in the myth course. I will be using Stravinsky's Rossignol, Henze's L'Upupa, Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, and Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges in the fairy tale course, with excerpts from Rusalka, Le Coq d'Or, and several others, even including the Forest Bird scene from Wagner's Siegfried, which is about as fairy tale-ish as the Ring ever gets. If I had more time, of course, there are plenty of other operas I could use, but I try to find the shorter ones (like Rossignol and L'Enfant) so that we can watch complete works as much as possible.

Of course, as you observed, there are many operatic adaptations. I have thought of ways to do a Shakespeare in Opera course, but the possibilities are so daunting--much too much time would be needed for the format of our OLLI classes. I assume you saw the Thomas Hamlet in the HD series--very well done, I thought. The NYTimes had an article about controversies involving the changes to the plot, especially the ending. There are, of course, several other outstanding Shakesperean operas. Other recent and very interesting adaptations are of Chekhov's Three Sisters, Strindberg's Miss Julie, Kushner's Angels in America, and a number of others. Earlier, Vaughn Williams's magnificent Riders to the Sea.

It's hard to imagine anyone being enthusiastic about revivals of plays by Scribe or Belasco, but the operas famously hold the stage and provide the backbone of the repertory, so that suggests that there is significant "value added" when an opera is successful.

Just some thoughts--all best wishes, Tom Dillingham"




Edited at 2010-05-05 03:59 am (UTC)
misssylviadrake
May. 5th, 2010 03:59 am (UTC)
Adaptation
Dear Tom,

What you say interests me very much -- out of my film studies but also as a result of a book I've just begun: Julie Sanders's _Adaptation and Appropriation. In her typologies and history of individual adaptation, Sanders centers on archetypes (fairy and other wise) that underlie connected movies and books. She also has chapter on Shakespeare adaptations. I did wrote a blog on the Met Hamlet. I thought it terrific:

http://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2010/03/28/simon-keenlyside-a-persuasive-hamlet-in-a-spectacle-hamlet/

The book is as much literary as filmic.

It sounds like a fun and refreshing course for you as well as your students, older and/or younger, of whatever ethnicity. When I've given up teaching as my "day job" I know I'd enjoy giving as well as taking such a course.

I find film can replace text when you study it. Both can be equally rich effective art.

I've begun my book (at last) on the Austen films: last summer I wrote some 60 pages on the Sense and Sensibility films, and the way I approached the films' similarity was to show the same archetypes in them, which may be derived from Austen's texts too. I have the summer off to work on my book once again and have half-begun :)

Ellen
asperias
May. 14th, 2010 09:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Adaptation
i liked HD Live Hamlet very much. the best part of this season in HD Live:-))
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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