Sadly, in Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Rossini’s 1817 opera Armida, we have another clunker. I know this was widely seen coming, but this production is weak sauce in so many ways. And now for Part Two of "It’s Raining Tenors!" (See here for Part One, on Partenope.)
I should have known it was going to be trouble from the picture of Renée Fleming wearing a hot pink dress and waving a wand on the Met website. Enchanting! Astonishing! Magic! was promised. But Armida is a Saracen sorceress who seduces and abducts upstanding and heroic Christian crusaders. She’s Carmen in the Holy Land with magic, or Thaïs without the reform (the latter Renée should understand). Renée Fleming in this production is a grown-up Disney princess whom her chief conquest Rinaldo would never fear to bring home to his mother. In a nutshell, the production is fatally unsexy.
The trope of knights seduced by heathen women is more fully explored and clearly stated in Monty Python than it is here. The knights are a random assemblage of dudes in uniform, their internal power struggles given no gravity or significance at all, Armida’s lair is populated by generically exotic women who seem nice enough. Armida’s demons, to whom Rossini gives some quite creepy music, are just embarrassingly silly with their tails and devil ears and slinky choreography. My companion pegged their look as straight out of Cats. Armida is not supposed to be scary and evil because she has poor taste in mega-musicals.
Armida’s magic isn’t just literal magic, it’s a stand-in for a threatening Other of female sexuality threatening good Christian soldiers. But this production completely ignores this in favor of sparkles. The production has its pretty moments but is completely without bite. Rossini’s final scene, as Rinaldo escapes Armida's grasp, has some intense music, but it just feels tacked-on here due to the low emotional stakes. The superfluous allegorical figures of Love and Vengeance wandering around don't help give things any gravity, either.
You can’t accuse Zimmerman of not listening to the music. Every change of tempo and meter is marked with a clear stage action or lighting cue. The effect is redundant and lifeless, because even though the music moves in blocks the dramatic flow should transcend the sectional construction. Just because the story is told in numbers doesn’t mean the numbers themselves are the story. The stage action references the music too directly and too frequently to assume any kind of life of its own.
Every single time we have an inner monologue or ensemble in which the participants are not supposed to hear each other, the lights dim to spots telling us what is up, you know, they can't hear each other! It insults the intelligence of the audience as well as being boring. The arias suffer the from some horribly static stagings (with decisive walking in the orchestral transitions). I know this is complicated music to sing and we are dealing with lots of tenors here, but it’s dramatically just flat. Zimmerman manages to find much more emotion and narrative in the duets, but the directing of the chorus is mostly aimless milling about on the production’s dull unit set.
Armida, with its many magical transformation scenes, seems a poor candidate for such a unit set, and we never have much of a sense of place. (I think projections would have worked better.) Here we have another curving wall, this time off-white rather than beige, it’s pretty enough but doesn’t add any effective atmosphere. There is "stage magic," meaning birds and stuff, pretty but forgettable and without dramatic purpose. The giant spiders I was excited about, by the way? Very disappointing. There are lots of poppies in the last act, though soporifics are the last thing the audiences needs at this point. (Seriously, guys, cuts. Look into them.)
The ballet in Act 2 was somewhat entertaining, Graciela Daniele's choreography a questionable mix of semi-ballet and cutesy hip-shaking. The point, a central male dancer corrupted by many lady dancers, was clear enough, but the dance's dramatic status was unclear, it was not positioned as a fantasy sequence but rather as a diegetic entertainment for Armida and Rinaldo, but it was unclear who was staging this for them or what it was supposed to mean.
Perhaps I would have been more dramatically convinced had the musical performance been more compelling. Renée Fleming sketched most of the coloratura, skating over the little notes instead of articulating them clearly, and she just doesn’t have the kind of fearless abandon in this kind of music that makes it virtuosic rather than dutiful. She didn’t have volume problems except on some of the low notes, and the voice itself is gorgeous. I didn’t notice too many of the lapses in taste for which she is so infamous, but she simply is miscast here. (Based on her amazing Colbran CD, I would loved to have heard Joyce DiDonato in this role.)
Now for our many tenors. Lawrence Brownlee was fantastic in Rinaldo’s more lyrical music, and he tossed off the coloratura with impressive ease and precision. I like his sweet and round tone, which projects just fine, but didn’t find it quite right for this role, where I think a certain degree more heft and heroism is required. Too soon for him? Perhaps John Osborn, who sang Goffredo, would be better suited to Rinaldo, though his tone is less beautiful it has a ringing strength that seems appropriate. He was excellent in the smaller role of Goffredo, though. Joining Brownlee in the infamous tenor trio were Barry Banks and Kobie van Rensburg as two more knights, both sang well but the piece didn’t quite add up somehow.
Riccardo Frizza conducted a very clean and precise reading from the orchestra that was maybe a bit short on dramatic weight and mystery--or maybe that’s just the production. The instrumental solos, particularly the cello and violin, were excellent.
I know that my impressions of this production are heavily colored by a different Armida that I saw last summer, or rather an Armide. (The plot, an episode from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, has been set not only by Rossini but also Lully, Handel, Haydn, Gluck, Salieri, Dvorak, and others.) This was Gluck’s opera of 1787, it was at the Komische Oper Berlin in a production by Calixto Bieito (NSFW clip and interviews here repeat not really that safe for work). I honestly find Gluck’s opera much more interesting than Rossini’s, and Bieito’s production, which positioned a determined, modern Armida in a business suit against an army of naked male prisoners, um, made an impression. It had all the danger and violence that this one lacked, perhaps all too much danger and violence, but Armida’s powers were clearly drawn.
(I thought, since I know the Gluck I would be fine not reading about Rossini before I went. FYI don’t do this, the plots are not the same AT ALL.)
We’re getting a revival of this Rossini next season, good lord. Can I petition to either bring Bieito’s Gluck Armide over from Berlin (come on, it would get the Met in the news for sure! I CANNOT picture Renée Fleming going anywhere near a Bieito production but vocally the Gluck would probably suit her voice much better than the Rossini) or maybe get William Christie to bring Les Arts Florissants to do the Lully Armide instead? I acknowledge the complete infeasibility and impossibility of this but I just want to say that you can do much better with Armida than this current specimen.
Next: Tosca, sei tu!
Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Video: NOT ROSSINI. Lully's Armide (1686), Les Arts Florissants