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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Opera Review: Armida's Last Dance

Renée Fleming returns in Rossini's problematic fantasy.
Renée Fleming in Act III of Armida. Photo by Marty Sohl © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera
In the year since this production premiered, Armida has gone from much-hyped spectacle to what it really is: a vanity opera about to be returned to the mists of obscurity. The fact that the run is almost over helped Tuesday's performance. The vocal fireworks were still stunning, but the cast, choristers, and ballet corps looked like they were actually having a good time performing this Rossini rarity. And the joy in performance of any opera, (however dreadful) is something to be treasured.

Mary Zimmerman's production, the Met's first-ever staging of this Rossini opera was mounted for Renée Fleming. The soprano made her operatic bones in 1993, when she sang in a live recording of Armida for Sony. Although she does not have the same vocal agility as 17 years ago, Ms. Fleming did an admirable job navigating the heroine's demanding coloratura. As a singer, she made intelligent choices throughout the evening, substituting some safer, lower options here and there and saving her best voce for "Dove son io...Fuggì!?" Armida's final peroration at the end of the opera.

Armida is unique in that it pits the heroine against six tenors, all playing knights of the Crusade. First in the six-pack is Rinaldo, the opera's hero played by tenor Lawrence Brownlee. Mr. Brownlee gave the finest performance of the evening, tossing off quick scales and fiery passages in his duets with Ms. Fleming.

Like her, he saved his best singing for the third act, rising to an impressive, full-throated high C at the climax of "Unitevi a gara." Able support was provided by Mr. Brownlee's fellow tenors: Kobie van Rensburg and Barry Banks in this unusual trio for three tenors. Antonio Siragusa and John Osborn also delivered fine performances as Gernando and Goffredo in the first act.

Unfortunately, the 1817 opera remains a work of its time, a spindly wire frame upon which to hang beautiful voices. Rossini's music remains inspirational and energetic, but the libretto is a lazy, confused affair with little drama or excitement. The production, with its plain backdrop, 18th century visual tropes and a splash of Miami Beach color, does not help the drama, but does not kill it either. That said, the decision to make certain stage cuts and trims in the recitative helped this revival, making the evening a less turgid affair than last season's run.
The dancing devils of the Act II ballet from Armida.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera
A final word on the opera's Act II ballet. Unusual for an Italian opera, the lengthy ballet dominates the second act of Armida. On Tuesday night, the Met's dance corps provided a number of small, surreal pleasures. From the sight of two dozen choristers in skin-tight devil costumes (complete with horns and tails) cramming into the Met's orchestra pit, to the robed and helmeted ballerinas (in drag as Crusaders) engaging in a kickline right out of Spamalot, this sequence proved most entertaining. It's a shame we'll never get to see it again.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.