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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
ARMIDA
at the Metroppolitan Opera

NOT-SO-HIGH NOTES
By MERVYN ROTHSTEIN

  RenĂ©e Fleming and company/ Ph: Ken Howard

Early in Act One of Rossini’s Armida, at an oasis outside Jerusalem at the end of the 11th century, Renée Fleming, in the title role, enters standing in a chariot of gold borne by two men, with a third holding a canopy above her head. Armida is a powerful sorceress, a stunning enchantress, come to trick Christian crusaders and weaken their strongest warriors in their battle to conquer the Holy Land. Seeing her arrival, contemplating her power, one Christian soldier declares, “Her voice strikes at my very soul.”
 
Fleming herself is indeed a vocal sorceress; she is star magic, whose voice has seemed to emerge directly from her own soul and buoy the spirits of the millions who have heard her.
 
How sad, then, that in Armida too often the magic is missing. The voice is still Fleming’s, but not Fleming at her very best. It is, as always, pleasing to hear, but it is not exciting – the radiance has disappeared. She herself selected the 1817 Rossini opera for the Met, having first performed it in 1996, but in 2010 it does not show off all of what we’ve come to expect from this great talent. At times her singing even seems a little muddy, particularly in those rapid runs of notes that are a Rossini specialty.
 
Maybe the opera is partly to blame. It’s interesting to discover this rarely performed Rossini piece, and it’s good that the Met decided to present it. Armida, based on Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata – Jerusalem Delivered – a Renaissance epic about the First Crusade, is one of eight little-known serious operas Rossini composed between 1815 and 1822 (they include an Otello) for two theaters in Naples.
 
The plot of Armida may be unexpected for a Rossini opera, but from the first notes of the overture, it’s clear that the work is Rossini’s, all Rossini’s, and nothing but Rossini’s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the music, while pleasant enough, is essentially generic, nothing special. There’s simply little that is surprising or exceptional in this opera, in its Met premiere. If you want to hear Rossini, much, much better choices are available.
 
Armida requires six tenors – something that is exceptional – and they are all fine, especially Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo, the great soldier whom Armida takes as her lover, who at times outshines his co-star.
 
The director is Mary Zimmerman, a creative and imaginative theater director who won a Tony Award in 2002 for Metamorphoses but was strongly criticized for her two recent Met productions, Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula. She provides dancing devils, as well as a young girl personifying Love and a masked, tattooed man as Vengeance, the two emotions Armida must choose between when Rinaldo abandons her to return to the battlefield. But it seems as if Zimmerman has let her imagination go only so far, and as the girl and the man continue to appear, the conceit grows tiresome.
 
There’s a 15-minute ballet in the second act, choreographed by Graciela Daniele, a multiple Tony nominee, so expectations are high, but the dancing seems mundane, and the dancers merely adequate. Yes, there are devils in tutus, but the joke soon grows weary as their time onstage goes on and on.
 
Riccardo Frizza’s conducting is – yes, pleasant – passable but uninspired. The Met’s orchestra, one of the best there is, sounds, well, Rossinian, but with no real drive or fire.
 
The set designer is Richard Hudson, another theater veteran and a Tony winner in 1998 for The Lion King. There are rows and rows of red poppies, a huge black spider, big, brightly colored parrots – but it all looks cheap. In Act Two, when Armida removes Rinaldo to her enchanted island, the Isle of Fortune, there is nothing enchanted about it, and the set looks as if it cost considerably less than a fortune.
 
To sum up, there is enjoyment to be had, intermittently, but nothing more. And the enjoyment is tempered by disappointment. Fleming is, gratefully, still Fleming, and I don’t think it’s possible for her to give a bad performance. But anticipation hoped for a great deal more, from Fleming and from the Met.
 
This is not to say that the Met did wrong in presenting Ar

 


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