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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Armida

Renée Fleming and Lawrence Brownlee in Armida.
Photo by Ken Howard  © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera
This month sees the first revival of the Met's 2010 production of Armida. Written in 1817, this Rossini rarity is only performed on rare occasions: in this case as a vehicle for soprano Renée Fleming.

Rossini composed Armida for soprano Isabella Colbran a bel canto diva with an agile instrument. In fact, the title role is the most difficult role written by this composer for a female voice. Sadly, he chose a cliche-riddled story that had been set by other composers, including Lully, Vivaldi, Salieri, Gluck, Haydn, and Handel. The story comes from Gerusalemme liberata, an epic poem by the 16th century bard Torquato Tasso.

Armida is a sorceress who tests the loyalties of six knights during the Crusades, complete with a magic castle and garden. (In other words, it's like Parsifal but with more sex and more singing.) The Mary Zimmerman production veered into silliness in the second act, which featured a controversial ballet sequence that outfitted the Met's crack dance corps in horns and tails as the critters within Armida's garden. One wonders if the company's revival will veer to the side of good taste and amputate the ballet.
Devils dance: The ballet from Act II of Armida.Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.

Although Ms. Fleming is the unquestioned star of this revival, she is surrounded by a small solar system of tenors, including the redoubtamble Lawrence Brownlee in the role of Rinaldo. John Osborn, Antonio Siragusa, Barry Banks and Kobie van Rensburg are the outlying planets.

Recommended Recordings:
Luckily for Rossini lovers and fans of Ms. Fleming, the diva's 1994 recording of Armida is back in the catalogue. Daniele Gatti conducts. The Met's HD broadcast of the opera from last season--featuring roughly the same cast as the coming revival, and with the silly ballet in place, arrives on DVD on Tuesday.

Finally, fans of the great Maria Callas should investigate a bootleg 1952 recording of Armida which arrives on CD this Tuesday. Although it's in mono and the sound is somewhat dodgy, the set features La Callas at the peak of her powers.

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