Read part 1 here.
When Gioacchino Rossini’s Armida premiered at Naple’s Teatro di San Carlo in 1817, it burst forth with an equal share of musical brilliance and literary unoriginality. Occasionally deemed “unperformable” due to Rossini’s requirement of a superb soprano with an almost impossible vocal range and a casting nightmare involving six tenors–one of whom must be truly exceptional to make the listening experience worthwhile–Armida is one of the last and most spectacular operatic variations on the themes of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (1581).
Tasso’s poem captures the paradigmatic tenets of the worldview of crusade and the ever-seductive power of “the Orient” as they clash in the fierce love-hate liaison dangereouse between the noble Christian knight Rinaldo and the Saracen princess and sorceress Armida from Damascus. Nearly 100 operas and ballets have been created that draw from Tasso’s story with greater or lesser fidelity to the original text and plot. European composers throughout modernity, from Monteverdi to Dvořák, apparently could not resist the appeal of this tantalizing interplay of rather predictable stereotypes such as: (Western + Christian) civilization versus (Oriental + pagan + infidel) barbarism. Or, irrational erotic love that finally, torturously, yet triumphantly gives way to the consolations of reasonable duty (Rinaldo and his Western Christian entourage) versus a seductive infatuation that eventually gives way to infernal rage and outcry for diabolical revenge (surprise, surprise, the infidel Armida). Among the versions of Armida that are available to contemporary listeners1 Rossini and his librettist Giovanni Schmidt have certainly created a remarkably intense and musically exhilarating opera and yet one that is glaringly cliché-ic with its predictable and conventional contrasts–at least from a contemporary postcolonial perspective.
The long and dazzling bel canto drama transpires in the outskirts of the besieged Jerusalem during the first crusade and various undisclosed locations such as enchanted gardens of seduction, magic castles, forests, and islands where the Oriental(ized) princess Armida works her devilish charms on the noble Christian crusader Rinaldo’s heart and mind. All the typical tropes of Western European conjectures of exoticism are proudly on display in Armida. The action starts in the crusaders’ camp outside Jerusalem where fierce infighting is taking place centered on who will succeed the deceased leader Dudone under the watchful eye of Goffredo (a fictionalized version of Duke Godfrey of Bouillon). The noble and heroic Rinaldo aspires to the position even though he will have to kill his rival knight Gernando in the process during a duel. Gernando apparently could detect neither sufficient military accomplishments nor sufficiently impressive noble roots in Rinaldo. Even worse, Gernando happens upon Rinaldo as his old love for Armida flares up again (the captivating duet Amor . . . possente nome) when they meet outside Jerusalem. Armida has not been exactly indifferent toward Rinaldo either. The listeners are informed that she has previously saved Rinaldo’s life on a battlefield. Understandably, Armida’s arrival has switched the crusader commotion into a higher gear. Initially the princess/sorceress appears innocent and wronged by her cruel uncle, the king of Damascus Idraote. Whose chivalric crusader heart could withstand her humble appeals despite some misgivings about collaborating with an infidel ousted aristocrat? Arriving surrounded by a disguised entourage of her uncle and a spirit-in-chief of some netherworldly domains in schlep to seek the crusaders’ support for her plan to retake the throne in Damascus, Armida–should one even have a shadow of doubt?–is presented as determined to seduce the most noble crusaders. However, Armida’s magical powers can’t stay undercover for too long. When the outcome of Rinaldo’s duel becomes clear and he has to make himself scarce to avoid the indignation of his friends, Armida whips up a storm to confuse the crusaders while the lovers escape.
What follows is by no means a plot to recover a lost throne in Damascus or elsewhere but a symbolic itinerary of the fall and salvific restitution of a temporarily seduced mind and heart of a Western Christian man. Armida’s side of the story is–another pervasive cultural cliché–to be heard and induced by reading between the (musical) lines. Historical connotations aside, Rinaldo is taken on an all-out journey of ever-growing enchantment through dreamlike palaces and forests of a subversive eros that surpasses religious and military boundaries and sensibilities. After all, if the prima donna is in a top condition to navigate a vocal minefield of an aria, who in their right mind could withstand the deliciously conquering allure of multi-octave love culminating in the “D’Amore al dolce impero”? Rinaldo falls ever deeper (in love) against the background of suave ballet but it is not to last. A pair of sober and determined friends of Rinaldo will make sure the creepy runaway illusions (of love) won’t prevail.
The third act consists of a melodious damage control operation to save Rinaldo from the web of Armida’s enchanted parallel universes which are everywhere and nowhere in particular. Crusaders Carlo and Ubaldo find their way to the enchanted island and, an onslaught of nymphs notwithstanding, conjure up a convincing rational argument for Rinaldo to return to his senses, his duty, his war, his masculine self-determination, and willpower. Still hesitant, Rinaldo is finally dragged out of the world of delights by his faithful warrior friends. Invoking God’s goodness to defeat his sacrilegious love for Armida, Rinaldo agonizes over which path to follow–love or valor. Predictably, passion for combat and glory rather than love wins. Armida appeals to Rinaldo’s love and compassion, and ultimately offers herself as a human shield for him on the battlefield presumably against her own compatriots to be able to stay together. But even such an offer would not persuade Rinaldo and company, and Armida is left behind to face the (fervent) music of her own struggle between love and revenge. Having been wronged, Armida’s sense of indignation wins. The opera concludes with a musical fury that sweeps away the palace of unrequited love and offers a splendid vendetta scene where, for once, the woman does not end up dead but expresses her rage to the fullest while treating the listeners to a Rossinian variation on theme of revenge comparable to the fierceness of Mozart’s “Der Hoelle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” from Der Zauberfloete. In light of Catherine Clément’s trope of the “undoing of women”2 in opera, one can conclude that perhaps a vengeful but alive woman is better than a woman done in by the joined forces of patriarchal cultural and religious constructs as one can see again and again in the world of opera–and elsewhere. And off to hell–whatever and wherever that might be–Armida goes while denouncing Rinaldo’s cruelty in the fireworks of coloratura.
The scarce contemporary productions of this immensely captivating, demanding, and (therefore) rarely performed opera can only be welcomed with excitement. So, it was unthinkable to forego the excitement of checking out the new Metropolitan Opera production of Armida in April 2010, a house premiere starring Renée Fleming and Lawrence Brownlee. And there it was, a Met premiere on April 12, 2010 with all the traditional attributes of an opening night–a (initially) celebrity studded audience, a star-powered cast, a flamboyant new production by Mary Zimmerman and Richard Hudson, and a nagging sensation of a déjà-vu. To be more precise, a déjà-vu of encountering the same tired cultural fixtures, dressed up in particularly bright “exotic” colors, costumes, and props against the narrative background of the First Crusade (1099). Yes, the same crusade that is known–among many other things–for the siege of Ma’arra and the “civilized” Christian crusader cannibalism when the exhausted Christian soldiers ate the Muslims they had previously killed in battle3. So, what appears on the stage is a more-of-the-same mesmerizing tour de force of exoticism. There is a plethora of clichés already embedded in the libretto and music: the orientalized other again appears as a woman who cannot help–what else–seducing, deceiving, manipulating, conjuring, misleading, and beguiling a whole army of noble, civilized, rational, dutiful, disciplined, macho Western European Christian tenors. The non-Western men, Idraote and Astarotte (sung by basses for a change in this opera yet routinely assigned to embody villains via their low voices) represent the typical tribe of cunning and scheming Easterners. Of course, in line with the mores of Western operatic exoticism, the non-Western characters are presented vaguely, with little attention to historical, cultural, ethnic, religious, and geographical precision or depth.4 The most intense amorous encounters of Armida and Rinaldo take place in a fabricated nowhere land of exoticist imagination–an “enchanted” island/forest/garden. The symbolism of the garden of seduction can barely be lost in the context of Christian crusades.
What shows up on the stage at the Met is a complete package of visually delicious and exoticized intermingling of orientalist conventions as one non-Western, presumably Saracen, sorceress plus a score of sneaky Eastern warlords, demons, and belly dancers attempt to derail the military and erotic ambitions of Western European patriarchal nobility somewhere around the soon-to-be-conquered Holy City. Zimmerman’s new production sports bright colors, dancers in sort of “Eastern” (Turkish?) costumes, palms, poppies, and huge parrots perching on the walls of the enchanted palace. Now the parrots really epitomize the unmoored exoticist conjectures of the modern-cum-colonial Western cultural imaginary. From what one can see on the stage, Zimmerman’s operatic parrots resemble macaws more than any other type of parrots. Macaws, no doubt, often fulfill the general convention of how an exotic bird should look. With a little historical impatience one might wonder how in the world did the South American macaws make it to the Middle Eastern deserts in the first century CE? Perhaps the explanation resides in the freakish power of Armida’s sorcery–but that just seems to be too bland an answer.
While Rossini’s music seems to allow for a variety of staging interpretations, the Met’s first Armida does not exactly appear as “imaginative” as the advertizing claimed. A truly imaginative production would have made a conscious effort to question at least some of the cultural stereotypes while this one dressed them all up with abandon. The production is certainly not boring at all as it may have appeared on the opening night when those who prefer to be seen rather than to see steadily trickled out well before the curtain fell at the end of this rare treat of over three hours of vintage bel canto and Fleming’s feisty “Dove son io… fuggi!”
For incurable melomaniacs–myself unrepentantly included–the music can open up imaginative spaces in any situation. Sometimes it happens even in spite of what is actually taking place on the stage, and this Rossinian gem is no exception. Whatever one’s verdict on Fleming’s self-professed “non-specialist” bel canto interpretation of this supremely difficult role, which may compare her 2010/2011 Met performances to the earlier 1993 Rossini Opera Festival recording, hers and Brownlee’s vocal agility certainly made it worthwhile to hang around until the vengeful end. Hopefully that is what the audiences did when Armida returned to the Met stage earlier this year. However, a little bit of historically and materially embodied imagination from the production team would not have hurt Rossini’s gorgeous score. The chief missing ingredient on the Met’s enchanted island is performative irony. Surely, that is nothing new on the conventional stages of the contemporary operatic establishment in the West where playing it ideologically safe and therefore catering to a more or less predictably established market of operatic consumption is a revenue-generating truism. Hence listeners are again left wondering what invigorating and truly imaginative (well, wouldn’t that mean at least something remotely related to innovative or revisionist?) action could appear on the stage if this saga could be approached from Armida’s perspective? That, of course, is the simplest route to try to tease out the hidden possibilities of the opera. There are many other paths a staging of an opera like this might want to explore.
What if Armida’s line in the duet with Rinaldo in Act I “your Europe calls us barbarian but is it not barbarian not to give a chance of life to the unfortunate when one can?” could be given some performative weight and depth rather than allowing these profoundly ironic nuances remain buried in a casual recitative? When there are excellent singers who can also act–and the cast of this Armida certainly could–what keeps the opera establishment from becoming imaginative, that is, ironic in an innovative and, I daresay, liberating sense? Certainly there are scores of opera productions, mostly in Europe, where the music and the stage action openly and deliberately clash to the point of resulting in a tired and boring overload of very expensive allegedly avant-garde claptrap. Despite the chase after what is now already a tiresome and repetitious shock value, these sorts of performances most often do not advance any truly audacious challenges to the supposedly outdated operatic conventions, let alone the dominant and very, very, very modern (in a historical sense!) cultural imaginary of Western civilizational supremacy. While there is no doubt that this particular imaginary is very resilient, very cozy, and still very profitable for some for a little while longer, music as an aesthetic enterprise has an uncanny quality of sui generis as a meta-pleasure as well as a meta-critique. Why wouldn’t we want to have our cake and eat it too–by feasting on the multimedia treats of opera with a decadent passion for both aural beauty beyond words and liberation through the resounding words of singing human bodies?
If you want to hear and see Armida, here are some options:
The production reviewed above is now available on DVD: Armida The Metropolitan Opera HD Live 2010 available on Amazon.com.
You can stream Armida directly through the Met Player in HD format. This is a subscription service but the Met offers a free trial period. Armida can be found HERE.
For audio recordings of Armida, the following full-length performances can be suggested:
Armida–1993 Sony Classical, B0000029L0. The Rossini Festival live recording with conductor Daniele Gatti and Renée Fleming, Gregory Kunde, Jeffrey Francis, Donald Kaasch, and others as well as the orchestra and choir of the Teatro Communale di Bologna.
Armida–1952 Documents Classics 2006 reissue, B000E3LJCG. Live recording with Maria Callas, with Tulio Serafin conducting. This recording is available in several remastered versions.
Armida–1999 reissue of Arts Music B00002MXQK with Cecilia Gasdia, Bruce Ford, William Mateuzzi, Chris Merritt, Feruccio Furlanetto. Claudio Scimone conducts I Solisti Veneti and the Ambrosian opera Chorus.
1Full renditions of Armida available on CD–Antonio Vivaldi’s Armida, Franz Joseph Haydn’s Armida, and Antonin Dvořák’s Armida. A compilation of arias from various Armidas sung by Annette Dasch (Sony BMG Europe, B000RJVT0E, 2007) offers fragments from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s, George Frederick Handel’s, Niccolo Jacomelli’s and Haydn’s Armidas.
2See Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women (Foreword by Susan McClary; transl. Betsy Wing; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989) for a trailblazing exploration of opera from feminist perspectives among other sources that critique and advance her insights.
3For a quick overview of this supremely harrowing event see, for example, Jay Rubenstein’s “Cannibals and Crusaders,” French Historical Studies 31:4 (Fall 2008):525-552.
4To get a glimpse of the current debates on the problematic of the “exotic” in Baroque opera but also beyond that particular period one can take a look at Ralph P. Locke’s “Alien adventures: exoticism in Italian-language Baroque opera,” The Musical Times, Winter 2009: 53-69.
Dr. Kristine Suna-Koro is Assistant Professor at the Department of Theology, Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH, USA. She received her PhD from Emory University in 2010. Her primary scholarly interests lie in the area of historical and constructive explorations of theological method with a particular focus on postcolonial and diasporic perspectives, and the Christian sacramental and liturgical discourses in the West and East. Since 1995 she has served as a pastor of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church Abroad in Great Britain, Germany and in the United States. Her scholarly and pastoral interests overlap through her engagement with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service ministries among migrants and refugees and through theological reflection based in the experience of migrancy and its multifaceted challenges.
Additionally, she has an enduring and irresistible curiosity about the correlation of critical theory and theological aesthetics, especially as they relate to the modern Western art music in the colonial and postcolonial eras. Since the age of about 10, when she heard her first full live opera performance in Rīga, Latvia, she has been an ardent opera fan. As far as the interplay of theology and opera is concerned, her most interesting theological ideas have often first announced themselves while listening to an opera, be it in New York, Rīga, London, or Stockholm . . . . Kristine has previously published on opera as mode of theologizing with a particular attention on the subversive performative efficacy of women’s lament in opera (see “The Ecstasy of Lament: Opera as a Model of Theology,” Theology Today 63 (2006): 66-87). Kristine and her husband currently live in Cincinnati with their three parrots.