Italian opera is usually not your best source for relationship advice, but Rosinni’s ARMIDA is a classic example of how NOT to break up with someone. Written by a composer noted for his comedies, the Metropolitan Opera’s staging is a funny, perverse love story. Originally produced in 2010, I caught multiple showings of Armida this past month on assorted public television stations and in hi-def rebroadcast in the theater.
The premise of Armida hints at dire consequences, but the staging strongly suggests satire. This opera is one of contrasts, opening with a funeral scene set to a cheery marching tune. Frankish Crusaders fighting the Turks are dressed in an odd combination of long robes topped with epaulettes, like monks cross-dressed with soldiers. The witch Armida first appears dressed in white as a helpless princess looking for a champion.
All the soldiers except for Goffredo are smitten with Armida and they vote their new leader to assist her. Rinaldo is the man of Armida’s dreams and her duet with him is a lovely melody with the yearning notes of longing and love. Renee Fleming can sing like nobody’s business and this performance is no exception though she’s singing a bel canto role unlike her more usual dramatic soprano. She explains the appeal in the intermission, saying this opera lets her “add my own notes.”
The love affair is doomed from the beginning, however, as the only reason Rinaldo agrees to go with Armida is to escape prosecution from killing a fellow soldier who attacked in him a jealous rage. This scene features one of the most important roles in the opera, but not a singing one. Revenge is shown on stage by a silent, tattooed figure that dances around and embraces the jealous soldier. The other silent figure on stage and in the story is Love, a young girl dressed in a red toga.
The hell that Armida and Rinaldo escape to is populated with writhing figures dressed in lizard-print leotards with padded sumo-style belts. The Metropolitan is noted for innovative staging, but I think they hit an all-time high when the giant armadillos dressed up in white tutus and start dancing around as temptresses. That hysterically funny moment may be why Ms. Fleming seemed to work at the aria that followed, D’Amore al dolce impero. Armadillos are a hard act to follow.
What doesn’t work quite as well are the other temptresses dressed in Turkish peasant costumes of baggy trousers and thick padded jackets. When Rinaldo’s buddies comes looking for him, they end up singing about resisting seduction on a barren set with a few solitary flowers and a crowd better suited to the country fair.
And that’s when Rinaldo blows it. It’s one thing to be enchanted or accidentally homicidal, but to split just because your friends don’t approve of your relationship? And even worse, to just sneak off without a word goodbye? So not a good plan!
Armida follows and begs to remain with him, as a servant if nothing else, but Rinaldo leaves anyway. The aria that follows shows of Ms. Fleming’s powerhouse voice and its emotional might. Armida pushes away the little girl who represents love and the opera ends with her embracing the shadowy figure of Revenge.
With the music, drama, just the enormity of staging and presentation as well as impact, opera is like soaps, music videos, and blockbuster movies all rolled into one. And now, it’s a powerful warning on the consequence of behaving badly. Take note, gentlemen, or there may be dancing armadillos in your future!