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
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.