Armida -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/16/2010
Fleming, Brownlee, Osborn, Volpe, Zapata, Miller, van Rensburg, Banks / Frizza
Rossini's 1817 opera Armida, like Wagner's Tristan und Isolde nearly half-a-century later, kicks off with the second meeting of a war-divided couple. In each tale, love flares up again at the reunion, against all obligation, and -- well, the resemblance isn't complete. The reunion does not, in Armida, send us all the way down the infinite abyss of Romantic subjectivity the way Wagner's masterpiece so famously does: Rossini was not so thoroughly the 19th century man, and in his work an older virtue eventually wins out. Duty, which against all sense apologizes to Tristan (showing its complete overthrow), reappears in the form of Rinaldo's two comrades, who convince (and drag) him to follow the higher, more sober road and reject the decadent love of the sorceress Armida.
But Armida herself does go down that rabbit hole, and I suspect it was her third-act-long madness in the face of abandonment that most strongly drew superstar Renee Fleming to this rarity. It is a rare opportunity -- extremity of expression in Fleming's own characteristic emotional key (as Der Rosenkavalier and even La Traviata are not) -- and she seizes it well, doing exciting credit both to herself and the underappreciated non-comic side of Rossini.
Getting there, however, takes a while. Before her last-act misery Armida is the string-puller of the story, her florid music a display and a seduction. Years of Manon, Thais, and general stardom have made Fleming happily comfortable in this sort of vehicle, but the part doesn't sit perfectly in her current voice: the fioritura is admirable but not as precise and exciting as a Rossini specialist's, and much of the part (written for Isabella Colbran, later Rossini's wife) sits low, where Fleming's sound now gets a bit mushy. Perhaps only Fleming can sell the opera, but a mezzo like Joyce DiDonato (no stranger to operatic madness herself, and one who has recently released a Colbran CD) might have made more of the first two acts.
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, too, takes a while to hit his stride. He seemed good but not quite star-quality in his debut run as Almaviva in 2007, and I'm not quite sure this has changed. His initial recitatives certainly impressed, but the rest of the first act's obstacle course (through alternately amorous and heroic music) was more well-negotiated than compellingly characterized. Also -- though this isn't particularly his fault -- Brownlee's precise sound doesn't naturally blend well with Fleming's richer timbre in their duets. On stage there's not much chemistry either: he's slimmed a bit and looks more the romantic lead, but is not yet the expressive actor that, say, Juan Diego Florez has become.
In any case, the lead pair did well enough in Act 2, but the highlights there weren't theirs. After bass-baritone Keith Miller nearly stole the entire show as the singing and dancing leader of the rat-looking demons (pale rats in flak jackets, actually), the act's second half was dominated by the production's one great success: the ballet by which Armida entertains Rinaldo in her pleasure palace. Whether dreamed up in broad outline by Mary Zimmerman or left in ideas as well as particulars to choreographer Graciela Daniele and associate choreographer Daniel Pelzig, this part of the staging was a treat for anyone receptive to dance. At first -- and for a while -- it's a lovely comic-pastoral treatment of sensual desire, but, in a re-imagination and recapitulation of Rinaldo's situation, the gross and sinister eventually arrives, so that... Well, you should see it.
In the end, of course, Rinaldo eventually finds himself again, and the next act's heroic music when he's finally dragged back to his senses brought Brownlee's finest singing of the evening. By this point we've heard four other notable tenors: Met debutee John Osborn (who's actually been singing Rossini's Arnold in Europe) impressively forceful for his fach, Jose Manuel Zapata a bit constricted but with a pleasant darker tone, Kobie van Rensberg as enjoyable as ever after a bit of warm-up, and Barry Banks -- whom I thought, at least until Brownlee showed his stuff in this last act, might have been the better pick for Rinaldo.
(The real coup, of course, would have been Florez, who's engaged for next season's Rossini rarity but isn't in this one. Though -- as the show itself proves -- we don't lack for quality Rossini tenors, none currently can make the notes count for so much as he. Listen to his recording with Kasarova of the famous Act 1 love duet -- which on Friday went for relatively little -- for a taste of what's missing.)
Riccardo Frizza conducts well and straightforwardly, with star-quality (as usual) instrumental solos by Rafael Figueroa and David Chan. If you can stick through a slow buildup, the latter acts of this show offer both excellent singing and real dramatic reward.