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Zimmerman Strikes (Out) Again

New York
Metropolitan Opera
04/12/2010 -  & April 16*, 19, 22, 27, May 1, 4, 7, 11, 15
Gioachino Rossini: Armida
Renée Fleming (Armida), Lawrence Brownlee (Rinaldo), John Osborn (Goffredo), Yeghishe Manucharyan (Eustazio), Peter Volpe (Idraote), José Manuel Zapata (Gernando), Keith Miller (Astarotte), Kobie van Rensburg (Ubaldo), Barry Banks (Carlo), Love (Teele Ude), Revenge (Isaac Scranton), Ballet Rinaldo (Aaron Loux)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Riccardo Frizza (conductor)
Mary Zimmerman (production), Richard Hudson (sets and costumes), Brian MacDevitt (lighting), Graciela Daniele (choreography)

(© K. Howard)

Mary Zimmerman is a new face in the roster of directors at Peter Gelb’s Met. This house premiere production of Rossini’s almost unknown opera of 1817 is her third effort for the Met, after a tepidly received production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which opened the 2007-2008 season, and her widely despised tweaking of Bellini’s La Sonnambula last year. Zimmerman’s latest attempt has hardly reversed the trend. Armida itself does not help. The direction transparently chose the work as the latest vehicle for the superstar soprano Renée Fleming, who had an early career success with the opera at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro in 1993 and subsequently recorded it to critical acclaim. Composed in the tradition of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera seria (Lully, Gluck, Handel, and Haydn also composed Armida operas, as did Dvořak in a later era), it presents tableau after set piece of extremely ornamented singing with a plot verging on the ridiculous. Adapted from Torquato Tasso’s fantastic Renaissance epic Jerusalem Liberated (Gerusalemme Liberata), the story opens in media res of a larger and, for our purposes, irrelevant Crusader epic to present Armida, a sorceress who tempts Christian knights into helping her take over the Kingdom of Damascus in alliance with the forces of Satan. Her latest champion/victim is Rinaldo, the strongest of the Crusaders, and, we learn, her old flame. After an elaborate seduction, he falls for the charms of a magical realm Armida creates with the help of Hell’s prince Astarotte and his army of demons. Rinaldo is rescued by his comrades, though with some difficulty, and really only after an appeal to his enormous vanity. Foiled in her ambitions, the petulant sorceress considers reacting along the mutually exclusive paths of love and revenge, chooses revenge, and uses her magic to destroy her illusory wonders and run away. Rinaldo and his companions survive, leaving one to wonder whether her “revenge” is just the plain spite of a scorned woman.

Zimmerman’s staging is self-consciously designed to revive what she calls “the old style of theater.” Someone should tell her that it is called the “old style” for a reason, i.e. because it cannot possibly excite modern audiences. And indeed, this Armida does not. Richard Hudson’s sets are simplistic and undemanding. Almost bare walls confine our vision and imagination in equal measure. The desert outside Jerusalem in Act I looks like the same painted cardboard used for the Egyptian desert in the Met’s last Fleming vehicle production, Massenet’s Thaïs, a disappointing effort that was nevertheless more engaging than this one. The magic garden and sumptuous palace Armida creates for Rinaldo’s seduction are suggested by a few spare birds, some stale trees, and an unattractive dance sequence. For some reason Zimmerman chose to represent the feelings of love and revenge with solo dancers who resemble lesser characters of Warner Brothers cartoons. Hudson’s costumes are serviceable for a fairy tale, but only his gowns for Ms. Fleming really attracted attention.

As dull as the work and production are, it is impossible to impeach the technical execution. Fleming’s voice has matured beyond the coloratura fireworks she was capable of launching in her youth, but she still delivered an impressive performance. As she ages, I have become more and more impressed with the subtleties of her dramatic delivery. Her Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Met earlier this season and Countess in the expository final scene of the same composer’s Capriccio during the 2008-2009 season’s opening night gala proved the point. While not exactly regal, her dramatic poise seemed to dull Armida’s raw emotionality. Lawrence Brownlee is the first runner up of today’s Rossini tenors after Juan Diego Flórez, but I found his Rinaldo too small in live performance. I had the same reaction to his Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola almost exactly a year ago. But if one is disappointed with the main tenor role, the opera’s cast offers an incredible five other tenors, all of whom delivered their roles with more or less solid singing. I was especially impressed by José Manuel Zapata’s Act I “Non soffrirò l’offesa” and regretted that his character, Rinaldo’s nemesis Gernando, is killed just afterward and disappears from the opera. Barry Banks and Kobie van Rensburg, in the respective roles of Carlo and Ubaldo, who rescue Rinaldo from Armida’s wiles, did well and were intriguingly matched with Brownlee in “In quale aspetto imbelle,” perhaps opera’s only trio for tenors. John Osborn’s Goffredo and Yeghishe Manucharyan’s Eustazio also deserve honorable mentions. Basses Keith Miller and Peter Volpe delivered the demonic characters in league with Armida without disappointment. With such a starry cast it seemed out of place to give the podium to Riccardo Frizza, who lived up to his reputation for not being very exciting.

Armida will return next season with largely the same cast, but only for five performances that may or may not be noticed.

Paul du Quenoy



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