188. Armida (Rossini)

  • Opera seria in 3 acts
  • Composer: Gioachino Rossini
  • Libretto: Giovanni Federico Schmidt, after Torquato Tasso
  • First performed: Teatro San Carlo, Naples, 11 November 1817

SETTING: The country near Jerusalem. The period of the Crusades.

CHARACTERS: ARMIDA (soprano); RINALDO (tenor); GOFFREDO [Godfrey of Bouillon] (tenor); EUSTAZIO (tenor), his brother; GERNANDO (tenor); IDRAOTE (bass); ASTAROTTE (tenor or bass), a demon; CARLO (tenor); UBALDO (tenor)

ORIGINAL CAST: Isabella Colbran as Armida; Andrea Nozzari as Rinaldo; Giuseppe Ciccimarra as Goffredo and Carlo; Claudio Bonoldi as Gernando and Ubaldo; Michele Benedetti as Idraote; Gaetano Chizzolà as Astarotte and Eustazio


Armida was Rossini’s first opera performed at the newly rebuilt Teatro San Carlo, destroyed by fire the year before. To mark the occasion, the work was suitably spectacular. The cast featured the soprano Isabella Colbran in one of her most vocally challenging roles as the Saracen sorceress, and no fewer than four tenors. To please the eye, Rossini’s early biographer Radicotti noted, there were “Armida’s palace and enchanted gardens, appearances and disappearances of demons, furies, spectres, chariots pulled by dragons, dances of nymphs and cherubs, characters swept up into the sky and descending from artificial clouds”. But the public were not pleased; they thought Rossini’s music was too ‘German’.

Armida, in fact, occupies a peculiar position between the eighteenth century and the nineteenth. In some ways, it is, as Kaminski points out, a throwback to the Baroque: a sorceress heroine, lavish special effects, magical devices, and a plot drawn from Tasso (used by Lully and Handel, as well as later by Gluck). On the other hand, the ‘German’ music, with its sensuality, enlarged orchestral forces, and unsettling harmonies, shows Rossini’s appreciation of Beethoven; tellingly, Richard Osborne titles his chapter on the work “Armida and the new romanticism”.

For Clément, Armida launched Rossini’s second period. Hitherto, the composer abandoned himself to his verve, his facility, his sensibility without worrying too much about the character of the work; henceforward, he sought dramatic expression more appropriate to the characters and the story, while remaining loyal to the forms of Italian opera. This new concern with drama produced La donna del lago, Ermione, Maometto II, and Semiramide.

Gluck’s Armide remains the best of the versions I know. Rossini’s has some of his most imaginative music to this point – the quartet and finale in Act I, the tenors’ trio – but Armida is a less complex character than in Quinault’s libretto for Lully or Gluck. Armida was considered one of Rossini’s lesser operas at the time; Stendhal, usually a prolific if conservative commentator on Rossini, passes over the opera in a few sentences.

Act I: The Crusader camp outside Jerusalem. The Franks’ leader Dudone has recently died; trumpets sound, his body is brought on, and Goffredo [=Godfrey of Bouillon] and the Franks pay him military honours. The Introduzione (‘Lieto ridente oltre l’usato’) is one of Rossini’s most musically impressive, and surely inspired the opening of Bellini’s Puritani. In a cavatina, Goffredo calls for a truce; today Dudone will be buried and his successor chosen. Goffredo’s brother Eustazio announces that a weeping princess has come to ask the Crusaders for help; it is Armida, princess of Damascus. She enters in a chariot, followed by Damascenes on horseback. Here is an imposing chorus (‘Quell’astro mattutino’). Armida and her uncle Idraote plot to destroy the Crusaders, luring them away through deceit. She tells the Crusaders that Idraote plots to murder her and usurp the throne; she asks for 10 warriors to help her. Goffredo replies that he will consider once Zion is conquered. This leads to a superb quartet (‘Sventurata, or che mi resta!’). It begins as an allegro aria for Armida; continues with a bridging section where Eustazio asks his brother to help the princess; an andante ensemble of perplexity; Goffredo agrees that the Paladins will serve her interests, although against his will; and Armida expresses her delight in a sparkling stretta.

Now the Crusaders must elect a successor to their dead leader. The best candidate is Rinaldo – whom Armida loves – but Gernando, another knight, is jealous. His three-part aria (‘Non soffrirò l’offesa’) is the weak point of the act: a conventional display piece, uninspired until the cabaletta (‘Ah! tutti v’unite’). Armida and Idraote plot to bring 100 men under her control, but she is reluctant to harm Rinaldo. The two meet. She saved him from his enemies; he remembers her with gratitude, but she reproaches him for forgetting her love, and deserting her. Combat and glory, he tells her, lured him away. The duet ‘Amor, possente nome’ is one of the most famous pieces from this opera. Swept away by passion, Rinaldo declares his love for Armida. In its day, it was notoriously sensuous – so much so that women were embarrassed to admire it, according to Stendhal. Modern listeners will find it tame compared to the Liebesnacht (Tristan und Isolde), but it depicts physical love. It reaches its climax in the allegro (‘Ah, non possio resistere’), leaving the singers panting and exhausted.

Chris Merritt & Cecilia Gasdia

Gernando discovers the hero in the princess’s arms, and accuses him of effeminacy and cowardice. His honour impugned, Rinaldo slays Gernando. The Crusaders call for his punishment, and Goffredo orders his hands to be bound. Armida’s magic obscures the sun, terrifying the knights, and Rinaldo leaves with his mistress. The finale (‘Se pari agli accenti hai l’anima audace’) is magnificent. The opening allegro section contains the sword fight and death; this is followed by an andante ensemble of stupefaction (‘Che terribile momento’); the Crusaders’ outrage (allegro: ‘Sappia il duce’); an andantino duettino for Rinaldo and Armida (‘Deh! se cara a te son io’); a forceful allegro ensemble (‘Vieni, o duce, punisci l’errore’); and a tremendous stretta (‘Amica la sorte’), which reminds some commentators of early Verdi.

Act II is a divertissement in the French style, Rossini’s response to Lully and Gluck. There are choruses of nymphs and demons, magical transformation scenes, spectacular changes of scenery, ballets, and a concert aria. It opens in a scary, demon-infested forest. Armida has ensnared Rinaldo, they gloat; without their best warrior, the Saracens hope Goffredo cannot capture Zion. With their jagged lines and menacing triplets, the infernal choruses (‘Alla voce d’Armida possente’ and ‘Di ferro e fiamme cinti’) look forward to early Verdi. Armida and Rinaldo descend in a chariot pulled by two dragons; when they land, she converts the wagon into a flowered seat, and the dragons vanish. ‘Dove son io!’ (‘Where am I?’) the astonished Rinaldo asks in a langorously erotic duettino. At her side, Armida responds. She reveals her deception; the knight, now thoroughly under her spell, forgives her. The enchantress transforms the scene into the interior of a magnificent palace; no more demons, but nymphs, cupids, and spirits of pleasure. This, she announces, is the palace of love. It all seems rather innocent and charming compared to Wagner’s Venusberg. Nymphs dance and sing (‘Canzoni amorose’), and Armida entertains her lover with an elaborate rondo (‘D’Amore al dolce impero’), full of runs and trills. Kaminski considers this series of variations the summit of flamboyant bel canto. A 14-minute ballet (some of it rather brilliant) depicts Rinaldo’s ruin: nymphs cavort around a young warrior, strip him of his arms, and replace them with a wreath and garlands of flowers. Forgetting martial glory, Rinaldo succumbs to lust. Make love, not war, is Armida’s maxim.

Act III: An enchanted garden. The knights Ubaldo and Carlo have come searching for Rinaldo, but they wander through the abundant fruit trees, flowers, streams, and birds fluttering from branch to branch totally blissed out (‘Come laurette placide’). Being in touch with nature is frowned on in Armida’s militaristic libretto; this garden is, of course, a hellish trap, its seeming beauty the work of black magic. A chorus of nymphs (‘Qui tutto è calma delizia amor’) try to reassure them; this is the abode of love; there’s nothing to fear. There follows the third of the Armida / Rinaldo duets (‘Spaci catene se amore ardi’); its andante grazioso finds them in post-coital bliss. But Rinaldo’s happiness doesn’t last long. The Frankish warriors shame him into fighting again; all the soldiers are prepared for war except he, a prisoner wearing soft linen and roses in his hair. They show him his reflection in a mirror. Rinaldo is disgusted to learn that he’s become a hippie. Now comes the magnificent trio in C major for three tenors (‘In quale aspetto imbelle’), full of virtuoso singing and phenomenal high notes.

Chris Merritt, Bruce Ford, and William Matteuzzi.

This is the musical climax of the opera; what follows is a slight disappointment. Outside Armida’s palace, the distraught princess reproaches Rinaldo for betraying her love and trust; despite his suffering, he resists. Armida’s rondo ‘Se al mio crudel tormento’ is a characterless vocal display. She falls senseless, and his fellow Crusaders drag Rinaldo away to sea. The opera ends with an allegorical scene in full 18th-century style. Armida vacillates between the spirits of Revenge and Love; her demons destroy the castle; all reverts to primordial chaos; then she and her horde pursue the Crusaders.


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Henri Blaze de Bury, Compositeurs contemporains – Rossini, sa Vie et ses Œuvres – II. – Séconde période italienne, d’Otello à Semiramide, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1854
  • Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
  • Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, 1869
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
  • Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1994.
  • Richard Osborne, The Master Musicians: Rossini. J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London & Melbourne, 1986.
  • Stendhal, Vie de Rossini, 1824

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