Saturday, May 01, 2010

Opera Note: Armida

Update: Should have said--this was the Met's live in HD performance as encountered at the Palookaville Odeon Saturday afternoon.

Apparently it was Renée Fleming wbo prevailed on the Met to produce Rossini's Armida, and it is easy to see why: we have one randy sorceress in the company of a platoon of hunky tenors. It's got to be one of the fattest parts in any repertoire for a coloratura, extending some three and a half hours, during almost all of which she is onstage.

It's easy to see also why the Met might have hesitated: first produced in 1817, it languished virtually unnoticed until an Italian performance in 1952. It still hasn't broken through at many major houses; the current production is a met premier.

Armida is cursed with the most damning label in the operatic catalog: opera seria, which is to say lots of declamation and marmorial stasis. If Rossini is a precursor of Gilbert & Sullivan, this is the Sullivan part, the dignity and majesty without the lightness and wit.

What saves it is a combination of bel canto technical brilliance, coupled with the seeming impossibility that Rossini ever write an unappealing line. Even when your mind has begun to wander, when you've lost the thread or simply lot patience, you can unplug and let it all roll over you.

Fleming certainly throws herself into it all, even if one sniffs a hint of self-indulgence. She confessed herself in an intermission interview that this isn't quite her home turf: she probably can't adorn it with all the bells and whistles of the convinced bella cantante but this may be a blessing: any more ornamentation likely would have been just overkill. But you get the feeling that Fleming, now 51 and seemingly at the top of her career, can identify with the sorceress who, for all her magical resources, has to work so hard to command attention.

Out of the five tenors who shared the stage with her, Fleming was especially well served by Lawrence Brownlee as her consort Rinaldo. Brownlee has a fine technical instrument. He uses it often in the comic bel canto but I've never found him particularly funny. I thought he was much better employed where he is the Dudley Doright of the Crusader's Mounted Police, handsome as 40 yards of pine paneling and dumb as a box of nails. And Fleming and he seem to have worked out the chemistry to sustain them through a long afternoon of shouting into each other's face.

I suppose I should add a good word for Mary Zimmerman's staging. I first saw her work in an amateur production of Ovid's Metamorphosis in Portland a couple of years ago which struck me as pretty silly. At the met I rather liked her Lucia di Lammermore with all its funny hats (others did not). I was more or less indifferent to her goofy rendering of La Sonnambula which others hated (though Mrs. Buce thought highly of it). I thought this production mostly dignified and restrained, far more serviceable for advancing the production than for getting in its way.

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