|Enter sand(wo)man: Renée Fleming in a promotional image for Armida|
© 2009 The Metropolitan Opera
by Paul Pelkonen
One year ago, the Metropolitan Opera's decision to present an obscure Rossini opera as a vehicle for star soprano Renee Fleming was met with anticipation. But, as the opening night of Armida attests, the opera house may regret the decision to indulge their star's wishes.
Armida has a threadbare plot, involving a Circe-like sorceress and her attempts to beguile crusaders in medieval Palestine. Grounded in an 18th century sensibilty, Armida also suffers from a vague sense of deja vu: the story was used for operas by Lully, Handel, Gluck, and probably others. And all of those are better than this Rossini effort.
Let's face it: this is a tough opera to sell to a modern audience. There is plenty of virtuoso writing and the work requires a star diva and six tenors. The music is of high quality and rewarding to lovers of bel canto style. But ultimately, there isn't enough magic in Armida to make up for its serious dramatic flaws.
Only a star with the magnitude and talent of Renée Fleming could carry off this opera. On Monday night she almost managed it. She sang beautifully throughout, producing rich, creamy tone and handling the work's dizzying heights (and one breath-taking low note) with little visible effort. But the great American diva held back until the final scene, when her character unleashes all the powers of hell against the errant knights. At this point, the opera caught fire. Unfortunately, that was with ten minutes to go in a four-hour work.
On Monday night, the six tenors required for this opera surrounded La Fleming like the Met's famous constellation of Swarovski chandeliers. Lawrence Brownlee led the pack as Rinaldo, the opera's hero. Fresh off a run in Barber of Seville, Mr. Brownlee has a smooth, agile instrument, ideally suited to Rossini's bel canto. Less pleasing (but still strong) performances were given by fellow tenors John Osborn, Kobie van Rensburg and Barry Banks. As the leader of Armida's demonic forces, Keith Miller's fine bass provided a welcome contrast to the opera's surfeit of tenor madness.
The production team of Mary Zimmerman and Richard Hudson presented a simple setting, a half-circle of pillars that could have doubled for Wagner's Grail temple or a cut-rate I Lombardi. Other Parsifal-like touches abounded, including a spear-toting knight in Act III and a field of flowers with an unfortunate tendency to bob up and down. Mr. Hudson's costume designs were imaginative, although the Act II chorus and ballet (with the male dancers in horned-devil body stockings) caused some of the Met's more conservative patrons to skip the third act.