May 24th, 2010

The Met in HD: Armida

Wednesday night, May 19th, we went to the South Shore Cinema to see the encore showing of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Armida”, by Gioachino Rossini. “Armida” is one of several operas adapted from Tasso’s 1581 epic poem “Jerusalem Delivered” dealing with the episode of Roland/Rinaldo’s sojourn on the magic island of the sorceress Armida.

In this version, the hero Rinaldo is a crusader at the siege of Jerusalem in the First Crusade. The action begins with Goffredo (John Osborne) addressing the Crusaders regarding their need to elect a new commander after the death of their chief. The election falls upon the young and gallant Rinaldo (Lawrence Brownlee). Armida (Renee Fleming) enters, claiming to be the rightful Princess of Damascus, and begging aid from the Crusaders to reclaim her throne. In reality, her goal is to aid the Saracen cause by enslaving any Crusaders she can lure away. Goffredo is initially resistant to her charms, but she conjures her power of love and beauty and wins the army to her support, which gets Goffredo to agree to commit ten knights to her side. When she realizes that the new commander of the Crudader army is Rinaldo, whom she had previously rescued when he was lost in the desert, she exults, feeling sure that Rinaldo will give her a hundred men.

Plans go astray when the jealous Gernando (Barry Banks) insults Rinaldo, which results in a duel in which Rinaldo kills him. The proud Rinaldo refuses to submit to Goffredo’s custody while the killing is investigated, and instead yields to Armida’s suggestion (enhanced by her spells) to flee with her, and she raises a storm to cover their escape.

Act II is set on Armida’s magic island, which is populated by her non-human servants, a horde of devils that do the heavy lifting, and feminine sylphs that are the visible servants. Much of the second act is taken up by a long ballet where the spirits do a dance replaying Rinaldo’s enchantment. As the dance proceeds, Rinaldo sinks further under Armida’s enchantment, eventually oblivious to the presence of the devils in the dance. At the end, Rinaldo takes the place of the dancer who has been representing him.

In Act III, crusader knights Carlo (Banks, in a dual role) and Ubaldo (Kobie van Rensburg) have found their way to the island in order to win Rinaldo back to the cause. They at first fall under the spell of the island, until they stumble over a sleeping devil, which alerts them to the illusions that surround them. When they encounter Rinaldo, they make him conscious of his fallen state, and call him back to his duty. Armida tries to prevent Rinaldo leaving, but he exerts enough will power to renounce her. Armida destroys the pleasure palace she has created and dedicates herself to revenge henceforward.

This was the first time the Met has presented this bel canto opera. Fleming lobbied for it, having performed it in other ventues. It is a real star vehicle for the soprano, who is on stage for much of three long acts, and requires great discipline and pacing. Ms. Fleming did a great job with all the demanding role’s requirements, including acting. She was well supported by the six (!) tenor roles the opera calls for.
Tony-winning producer Mary Zimmerman created a magical if low-tech presentation that served the story well. We especially liked the old-style reptilian devils, and the personifications of Love (Teele Ude) and Revenge (Issac Scranton) that added to the staging with mimed action reflecting and affecting the characters’ emotions. The costuming, by Richard Hudson, was an entertaining if eclectic mix. Crusader soldiers, in long red skirts, round helmets, and breastplates looked Roman, although their officers, in long greatcoats, seemed more like 19th century Prussians. Armida has an assortment of 18th century Western dresses, while her servant sylphs dressed as ethnic Mid-Eastern women, but with little fairy wings. The devils had spandex bodysuits in geometrical patterns that seemed scaly, horns, and long tails, accessorized with corsets and codpieces. The devil’s leader, Astarotte (marvelous performance by Met stalwart Keith Miller), added to a vaguely “Rocky Horror” vibe by having opera gloves as part of his ensemble. Love was a rose-colored ballerina/acrobat, while Revenge was a tall and muscular man, bare-chested to show sinister tattoos, and wearing a mask with a scorpion’s tail where a queue of hair might have been.

Although there are not much in the way of hummable tunes, Rossini’s music is beautiful and effective, and conductor Riccardo Frizza did an excellent job with the orchestra. We enjoyed the production thouroughly and were very glad to have had an opportunity to see and hear this rarely presented opera.

Florentine Opera: Rigoletto

On Sunday the 23rd, we went to the Florentine Opera to hear a very well sung presentation of Verdi’s revenge tragedy, “Rigoletto.”  We say "hear", because there wasn’t much to see. The set design,  by Noele Stollmack, who also did last season’s modular “Magic Flute” set was compared by the Journal-Sentinel reviewer to an empty warehouse. To me, with it’s repeating square gray fabric panels and black metal railings, it more suggested a depressing modern office space, sans desks and computers. There were some good lighting effects, such as Sparafucile’s looming shadow, or the lightning in the storm scene, but mostly it just illuminated a big bare space, such that even the Duke and Maddelena’s rather explicit groping seemed diluted and distant.

 The suggestion of modernity was carried through with the costumes, the men largely in Nehru suits, and the women in very simple dresses—but of course with inconsistencies.  The Duke wears a brocade dressing gown when in propria persona, the jester Rigoletto’s duty uniform is a garish multi-colored coat that didn’t really amount to motley, and the assassin Sparafucile looks just as he ought in any classically garbed production: cape, boots, breeches, and tunic with his dagger at his belt. If he were matching the rest, he should have been in a “wise guy” suit, or maybe a black leather jacket and chains. Sigh.

Acting was generally adequate, but Luis Ledesma, who played Rigoletto, was annoyingly inconstant as to his physical acting.  Both his limp and his hunchbacked stance faded in and out.  Early in the show, he tended to exhibit a spastic twitch, which eventually went away entirely and was not missed. There was one bit I did particularly like: as Gilda (Georgia Jarman) relates the story of her seduction by the Duke (Arturo Chacon-Cruz), Rigoletto writhes in discomfort, making it appear that he has heard this story before, but from a co-conspirator’s viewpoint.

The singing was overall very good. Ledesma is not the best Rigoletto we have heard, but did a satisfactory job.  Both Jarman and Chacon-Cruz were very fine, effortlessly filling the hall with their rich and beautiful voices.  They were well supported by Stephen Morscheck as Sparafucile,  Audrey Babcock as Maddalena, the various small parts, and the opera men’s chorus (who, curiously enough, did not get a curtain call).  Maestro Joseph Resigno had the opera orchestra under his usual confident direction and did good justice to Verdi’s gorgeous music. So, it was a good afternoon of listening: however, as our friend said, “I was able to read all the Supertitles, because there was nothing to look at.”