The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

MET - Rossini: Armida (Met premiere). Rare must-see gem of masterpiece faithfully played, blandly produced. Triumph for Larry Brownlee. 01.5.10

Regardless how it may turn out, a production of Rossini’s Armida is a great event.

Long before the World Cup, Rossini experimentally wrote a trio for three tenors that the world cup trio, to best of my recollection, never touched. What revivals of Rossini’s Armida there have been have been rare. There was the famous 1952 Firenze revival with Maria Callas, also featuring Mario Filippeschi as Gernando and Ubaldo and a young Gianni Raimondi (in Act 3) as Carlo. Tulsa Opera, of all companies, put it on in 1992, for very unique observation, I recall reading, of Rossini bicentennial that year.

Armida marks Rossini’s only thorough engagement of the supernatural in one of his operas. Third among his Neapolitan opera seria, it served to reopen (after bad fire) the San Carlo in Naples. For this, Rossini expanded upon significantly what he could thus far make an orchestra do. Of the story of a sorceress’s seduction of a Crusades knight, Rossini capitalizes most of all on making this a love story between Armida and Rinaldo. As enhanced by his employ of exotic harmony and color, at peak thus far of intellectual acumen mixed with his passion for Isabella Colbran, who created the part, Rossini crafted this narrative with commanding subtle complexity. Its simplicity of design also becomes arresting to anyone who becomes intimately familiar with this work.

Rossini left open the option of a company having only to hire four tenors instead of six for Armida, by having two tenors double up on available parts. Three of the tenor parts are fiercely difficult, those of Rinaldo, leader of the paladins Goffredo and the jealous Gernando. The Met opted for hiring six tenors and for two earlier performances in the run, had found them. Two cancellations however unfortunately ensued, those of Bruce Ford as Goffredo and then Jose Manuel Zapata as Gernando. John Osborn, here last fall in Houston for other than vocally disastrous Elixir of Love, replaced Ford, cleanly so. Barry Banks added Gernando to being cast as Carlo.

Mary Zimmerman, of last-season La Sonnambula notoriety (for which Natalie Dessay, unqualified, joined her as co-producer) staged this, the Met’s first Armida. Only hinted at, fortunately, was silly post-modern feeling of play within play of Armida, compared with Sonnambula staged as rehearsal thereof. An always mute, cherubic figure in pink, Amor, was first to enter the stage (with sign proclaiming E allora fu), cloyingly becoming annoying right away. Zimmerman gratefully made mostly more deft use of this mute part past the first half hour or so of Armida. Put however two sofas on stage for Act One, set during first Crusade at camp outside Jerusalem, and the set design in light tan with motif of palm trees would be easy to mistake for lobby of a large La Quinta Inn. Deflating so well indeed was the costuming for the maitre-d’ and waiters, oh the knights, to make up Act Onemen’s chorus. The costumes resembled so much quasi plastic thin metal for tank top breastplate over teletubby approximating red flannel. Fortunately solid-with-trim costuming of lead characters, simple along Napoleonic era lines, worked very well, apart from the all slightly loud and coy light magenta among three gowns Fleming wore

Riccardo Frizza, on Met podium with Rigoletto last season, made his Met in HD debut with Armida. Rossini, with very fine orchestra at his disposal in Naples, wrote in much infusion of often exotic color into his scoring to just both good extent for him personally and a little beyond what could be expected at the time, where best serving his purposes both musically and dramatically. It is all by now so subtle to our ears as we hear what was so innovative of him at the time, thus the only sufficient way to listen to Rossini is as though, best we can, with good approximation of how people heard things during his day. Facing what little Frizza saw on stage here, it may have become easy to settle for casual minimum in bringing out the fine color in Rossini’s orchestration.

Frizza led the Met orchestra through this with optimum rhythmic and stylistic clarity for most of it, plus good support for his singers, but often unimaginatively. What he is capable of accomplishing can be heard on recordings of Matilde di Shabran and Fille du regiment (that he also conducted in Houston in 2007). His orchestra in Genoa on Fille du regiment, with horns of Tyrolean flavor, brings out more color than one normally suspects that score calls for.

There were such highlights here as well, particularly with the ballet music in Act 2, with incisive spring and charm to its rhythms and colors, and atmospherically idyllic introduction to open Act 3 Frizza characterized equally well. Solo winds and jousting antiphony of solo horns (in the Sinfonia) gave always of their very best. Rafael Figueroa got pushed for whatever reason through his Act 2 Rinaldo/Armida duet cello solo introduction, for playing proving anything but sensuous or demure. David Chan was hardly more subtle for parallel concertmaster solo in Act Three. Choral work for the men lacked heft for Rossini’s proto-Trovatore writing assigned them. Good handful among nymphs looked the aging butter-and-eggs variety, sounding it as well If these be nymphs, I divert mine eyes from how the used up may appear. With better than streamlined rehearsal time for drawing out the color in Rossini’s scoring, thereby to infuse this music with consistently driving passion, Frizza could have given it his all.

John Osborn delivered first vocal splendors as Goffredo. He managed to find good vocal placement, showing fine rhythm and rhetorical sense for the brilliant writing in front of him. A hint of steel in his voice fit very well too, with no loss of agility. Rossini with this religiously zealous leader of the paladins subtly reveals in Goffredo’s writing what chinks are in his armor in ability or not to resist Armida’s charms. He also had in Giuseppe Cicimarra a singer who was, according to Richard Osborne, dramatically weak. Rossini had had to compose Iago for him and did so in a way widely considered low-key, with exception of several pages therein. Osborne, however, added in perhaps one or two pieces of ornamentation too many, such that took him through a squeal of a high C – little more sign of weakness than Rossini had in mind. Donald Kaasch, from Pesaro (1992), is still less considerably capable of so much embellishment as he throws in. He and Daniele Gatti are also both too lavish about embellishing Rossini’s rhythms.

Yeghishe Manucharyan made an ideally Mozartean Eustazio. As weak a character Eustazio is – as balance to his brother Goffredo and the furious Gernando – he brought fine measure of dignity to the simple part. Barry Banks, stepping in for Jose Zapata, was the new Gernando, proving two-dimensional at it. For numerous lines that start on low notes and also cover a wide range, Banks invested more snarl than tone. A mildly cracked tone emerged for most of this. When he returned, well rested, for his originally scheduled part of Carlo, Banks then emerged at his lyrical best - good and firm too in showing outrage at Rinaldo; he supported Brownlee very capably for centerpiece of Act 3 - an only now on cusp of familiar trio for three tenors. Filling out the rest of that equation was Kobie van Rensburg, quoted in interview of Ubaldo (like Gernando) having been composed for bari-tenor Claudio Bonoldi, proved musically sensitive, adept, but tonally weak, even slightly cracked for ability to provide optimum support during the trio.

Renee Fleming pleasantly proved still capable of singing the title role, apart from several high notes by now a little tight. As said elsewhere, this was a sorceress on low ebb or smolder - denying even of fully open sensual allure to have debauched more than the most impressionable knight. Together with plethora of glottal stops, light guttural attacks, there was an incipient split-second hesitation before taking on many dauntingly virtuosic lines in this part, including during Act One quartet - moment at which we need Armida to make the strong Circe-like impression with which she should indulge us. Such should ring true also for the mesmerizing theme and variations of Act Two, with which to set down pat a complete seduction of Rinaldo. So many aspirates in coloratura only hint at folly the amount of time Fleming has committed to singing bel canto.

Fleming’s acting of Armida also raised questions. Taken with somewhat verismo vocal means, there is a postmodern glib irony to it all. Even conventionally, Armida makes use of irony in a conniving, manipulative way toward both getting her way and gaining as much control possible over the knights. This however is something a little different. Rossini’s infatuation with Isabella Colbran comes through in the great allure of his writing for the sorceress. As part however of Armida being a star vehicle for Renee Fleming, here is way of playing the sorceress as victim to lace the part with irony as device for merely artistic ingenuity’s sake – to portray being on the defensive. Those evil, plundering Christian knights, it is easy to see why.

The creamy, warm sound, good depth in lower register and bright top, it is good to report still are intact, even for Rossini. The glottal stops, guttural business, though still there, get applied less broadly than how she went about things in Pesaro, but with voice now slightly less free, flexible than surely it had been at time of doing that. Though still in mildly generic verismo manner, Fleming did manage to put her all well into the final scene of the opera to play jilted lover incisively as we expect - except that in her way with Armida, Fleming makes the outcome feel anticipated from considerably earlier in the opera than has Rossini. Curious indeed was the blues bend, blend she and too easily allured head-voiced Lawrence Brownlee gave their brief Act 3 duet ‘Soavi cateni’ – not to mention how much more cute Larry and Renee looked together on stage for this than they had already. ‘Soavi cateni’ now might make newest crossover hit for Captain and Tenneille – might they still be up to it. It is great how Fleming still encourages, promotes careers of young singers so much - singers from such a diversity of backgrounds as highly gifted Tianjin born bass Shenyang to previously, as suggested, Youngstown, Ohio boy Lawrence Brownlee.

I have almost already had to stop myself short of calling the opera Rinaldo for what Brownlee contributed to this. His manner of phrasing, tone color is what one might call little less typical for Rossini than that of Juan Diego Florez, except that Rossini was so diverse in branching out to find color with which to infuse his parts, even outside of bel canto convention - in many instances far from purely so. At 37 years old, nothing is too effortful for Brownlee in this part that, like Pirro, Agorante, Otello, Rodrigo (Donna del Lago) was composed for Andrea Nozzari. Tenore di forza aspects of Rinaldo here might, in comparison with a Bruce Ford or Chris Merritt before, be understated, but Brownlee’s stance in being authoritative with so many lines was still secure. He communicated a wealth of acting, stage savvy to back himself up on too - should variety of tone color not be quite complete for subtly complex assignment as this.

There was nobody on stage who sounded more lyrical Saturday, with sufficient bloom to enhance so well the lilt and ardor that characterizes Rinaldo, over indeed very treacherous terrain, covering a very wide range, with leaps occurring of well over an octave. His manner of embellishing the line was the most subtle, judiciously applied of the entire cast. He made all this happen with fine agility and judiciously again with opening out of much with which one should endow Rinaldo Peter Volpe filled in as drily voiced Idraote - Keith Miller the physically agile and vocally sufficiently even Astarotte.

Producer Mary Zimmerman did intermittently contribute several clever touches. Slow motion swordplay anticipation of Rinaldo and Gernando really having it out worked very well. Though distracting from overall dramatic flow and attention getting for its own sake, the choreography (Graciela Daniele) for the Act Two ballet was incisive, beguilingly complex in pattern for well striped tailed demons creating havoc across the stage. As for the mute parts of Amor and Vendetta - too much diva props during final scene of the opera, Vendetta played by bare chested walking ad for Mens’ Health or Gold’s Gym - the less seen the better. It is better to opt for the good lighting design available here to accentuate Armida’s even willfully quick vacillations between two conflicting emotions so beautifully and dramatically delineated by Rossini than for so much leaning back and forth between two such silly figures on stage. Deflating too is having a wall cut off most of the Met stage behind Fleming for the final scene, as doing so cuts off so much perspective. There is this great uncertainty at which Rossini leaves things, concerning which direction his sorceress will turn to next.

Intermission features for this in-HD Armida turned out dreadful. Lawrence Brownlee walked in, chaperoned arm in arm with Renee Fleming over to Deborah Voigt. For neither any man nor woman is Brownlee house boy in the least. Fleming had already appeared solo before Deborah Voigt. It could have been a bright idea to have entire time taken up by conversation with Phil Gossett - apparently on board for musical preparation here - in company with all three,. What, could have Met staff feared that Gossett might again pull out a funny quote, such as obscenity Rossini inscribed on one page of Otello? Instead we got one big worship-LaRenee-fest for good half of everything. No mention of the San Carlo, Isabella Colbran, Andrea Nozzari, orchestra in Naples, Rossini’s multicultural emphases in his scoring, traditions of ornamentation was made - except for La Renee to compare the latter with blues or gospel improvisation.

All the talk of being a great team player also got annoying fast - scripted partly by the little Napoleon who behind scenes runs everything at the Met. One might think the U.S. now enters its own phase of the old and rightly so heavily derided social realism of forty-plus years ago. What is good for the corporate welfare state is what we should expect as best for the arts we patronize - standard by which the arts should now always comply. That included Saturday promo of the new production of the Ring at the Met that as Debbie explains, just simply tells the story.

All art, theater, recreation of it, is representational. Especially in our day and age, there is really no such thing anymore as just simply telling the story – just so much horseshit – and with the paltry way in which things get rehearsed so often. The Met’s show of playing Armida, sets and costumes wise, on the cheap, was deflating. At least as planned, the casting for this new production however was indeed luxurious.

This was still Rossini’s Armida. One, if not yet, still absolutely must go see it. In the end, all the parody of diva conniption with the small wand that Fleming carries around with her as Armida between her and Voigt was cute, but ultimately just so silly. Fact of the matter, neither one of them has one.

It appeared as though few of the men on Met stage for this Armida had one either.

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