- Dramma per musica in 3 acts
- Composer: Antonio Salieri
- Libretto: Marco Coltellini, after Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata
- First performed: Vienna Burgtheater, 2 June 1771
|RINALDO||Castrato (soprano)||Giuseppe Millico?|
This is the fifth (!) time this blog has looked at an opera about the enchantress Armida, so you ought to know the story by now.
Salieri described it as an “opera containing magic, heroes, and love, which also touches on the tragic”. Briefly, Armida is Princess of Damascus, and a Muslim – and therefore, according to Torquato Tasso, a sorceress in league with the powers of hell. She seduces the Christian knight Rinaldo, who falls completely under her spell, and spends his time making love to her rather than killing Saracens. Fortunately, his crony Uberto persuades him to do his moral duty, viz. ditch his girlfriend. The distraught Armida destroys her magical island and pursues Rinaldo
with a breach of promise in a chariot drawn by lawyers dragons.
Five: Lully (1686), Handel (1711), this, Gluck (1777), Rossini (1817). That doesn’t count Sacchini’s sequel (1783). Haydn (1784) and Dvorak (1903) also wrote operas about Haydn. (M’colleague Phil has reviewed Dvorak’s.) The lady got around.
Armida was Salieri’s fourth opera, and his first popular success. It was a Gluckian reform opera; Braunbehrens (1992) even considers it the first such work written after Gluck’s own Alceste and Paride ed Elena, while Mayrhofer (2021) suggests that Gluck himself may have arranged its production. Later, of course, Gluck would name him his chosen successor.
The musicologist Carl Friedrich Cramer, editor of the Altona Magazin der Musik, declared that Salieri had followed in Gluck’s footsteps, turning away from the conventions of opera seria. He scorned “the old useless ritornels and da capos, the sing-song of expressionless passages, the glitter of mere musical effects which only destroy the illusion of the scene”. Instead, arias and choruses were short; the overtures picturesque; the instrumentation varied; song and dance were joined; everything was calculated for general effect and he expressed the passions of the text with “heart-felt, melting, soul-touching song”.
Salieri thinks in terms not of bravura arias to display the singer’s virtuosity (some of them in the works of Hasse reaching 11 minutes), but in terms of the scene, merging recitativo accompagnato (orchestrated, rather than the dull secco harpsichord), choruses and arias (many of them tiny, several less than a minute long). Rousset (Gramophone, 2021) recently compared the technique to “a dazzling mosaic of atmospheres, moods, and theatrical effects… The composer succeeds in fluidity, … creating an effect of zooming in for a close-up or zooming out to carry the dramatic storyline.”
The opera helped to make Salieri’s name. The first of his works to be printed in its entirety, it was performed in Germany (Bonn, Mainz, Frankfurt am Main, 1776 to 1785), in Denmark (Cophenagen, 1773, in both Italian and Danish), and in Russia (St Petersburg, 1774). The German-Danish musician and theoretician Johann Adolf Scheibe heard it in Copenhagen; it “embodied his ideas of what an opera should be, since it banished all the conventional ornamentation and depended for its success alone upon nature and the heart”.
Salieri, however, was not satisfied with the work, and revised the instrumental parts in 1789. He “blushed” at its “unforgivable immaturity”, he told Cramer in 1783. “Mistakes in the theatrical organization, of misleading passages, etc.” “made me look at my first Armida with dissatisfied eyes… So, just to repeat it again: nothing is more important to me in vocal music than the truth – the truth that I hear in entire works, as well as in the details of the tragedies by the inimitable master, Gluck, and that I could find only in very few masters in other categories of music; it is this that I try to put into all my operas, that requires the effort of thorough study, and only this has determined any changes I have made, and am still making in Armida” (20 July 1784).
Despite its historical significance and its Gluckian ties, I find Armida pleasant, but minor. The story is static, and lacks conflict. Much of the opera consists of characters reacting on what has happened offstage; it is an opera of reflection and contemplation, rather than action. So, too, is Gluck’s Paride ed Elena, but the music there is ravishingly beautiful; Salieri’s is remarkably sweet, as Fétis observes, but it is not as inspired as his later French operas, and the score is perhaps too mild and monotonous for a two-hour work.
The overture – variously described as programme music or a tone poem – is “a kind of pantomime as prelude, a pantomime executed by the orchestra alone” (Salieri’s words). It describes, Salieri wrote, “Ubaldo’s arrival on Armida’s island in the dense, dark fog surrounding it; the monsters, standing guard, that attack him at the foot of the cliff to frighten him; the terrible howls and confusion with which they are put to flight on being confronted by his magic shield; the effort and utmost exertion with which he climbs to the top of the overhanging cliff; finally, his quick progress bringing him to the crest of the mountain into a more pleasant and enchanting region.” The overture impressed Salieri’s early critics: “Merely to have conceived of this is proof of Salieri’s great descriptive genius,” wrote Cramer.
Act I is almost a prologue, only 25 minutes long. It opens with a lovely chorus of nymphs (‘Sparso di pure brine’) and a ballet and gavotte. Their idylls are abruptly interrupted by Ismene; she warns them that an unknown vessel has been sighted off shore, and the guardian monsters have run away in fear from a warrior. The women decide to charm the intruder. When Ubaldo enters, they try to lure him into their pleasures; Ismene’s aria is the seductive menuet, ‘Vieni al fonte dei contento’. When Ubaldo churlishly refuses, Ismene summons demons, but they flee before Ubaldo’s magic wand. Ubaldo thanks God, and prays for His help in rescuing Rinaldo from “the deceits and powers of Hell, the charms of vain beauty”. The act ends with Ubaldo’s aria ‘Finta larva’; Salieri reserves the first substantial solo for the close of the act.
Act II takes place in a pleasant garden, surrounded by a maze. When the curtain rises, Armida and Rinaldo are weaving garlands, just as their voices entwine and caress in the duet ‘Qu’il regno è il contento’; they are strewing life’s path with flowers – but Ubaldo would claim this is the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire. Armida is frightened her lover will leave her; she left her kingdom and her fortune to be with her; if she loses him, all she will have will be her shame of being betrayed. Armida departs after singing a rather stately exit aria, ‘Tremo, bell’idol mio’, which Salieri noted called for agility and high notes. Alone, Armida falls asleep, to dream, perhaps, of Armida – a slumber scene in the classic French style. His adagio aria, ‘Vieni a me sull’ali d’oro’, is probably the major aria of the act; the opening is exquisite. Spirits representing pleasures dance around him (Ballo). Ubaldo appears, and the spirits vanish. Ubaldo sings a heroic, robust, but very short aria, ‘Oh come in un momento’. Ubaldo finds Rinaldo asleep upon a bed of flowers, and hangs his shield on a branch, so that when Rinaldo wakes, he sees his reflection, and realises what he has become. There follows a two-part duet, interrupted by a two-minute recitative accompagnato. Armida enters, frightened by the news a stranger has arrived on the island; she fears she will lose Rinaldo. In the second, main section, ‘Dilegua il tuo timore’, Rinaldo tries to reassure her; he says he will protect her, and is ready to die for her, but Armida knows it will be in vain. She flees in terror when she sees the shield Ubaldo brought. Rinaldo makes to follow her, but Ubaldo confronts him; he tells him that her beauty, charms, and love are traps set by Hell, and urges him to forsake Armida and return to the camp. Rinaldo agrees to flee, but expresses in his confusion in ‘Vedo l’abisso orrendo’, a Metastasian metaphor aria comparing his troubles to the sea; he is full of remorse, but his passion has not been extinguished.
Act III opens in a vast, subterranean chamber where Armida and her attendants try to summon the spirits of the dead, but they seem deaf. This scene, ‘Chi sorde vi rende’, is a magical scene inthe French style; a sombre, mysterious prelude leads into a rondo chorus, alternating with Armida’s intense declamation. Ismene warns Armida that Rinaldo is escaping without a last farewell. Armida’s exit aria ‘Ah mi tolga almen la vita’ is apropriately marked allegro con agitazione; it is intense, drmatic, and ends with almost frenzied coloratura. When she has gone, Ismene and the chorus wonder what will become of her, and want to comfort her in her grief (‘Schernita, depressa’).
The scene changes to a beach; Rinaldo and Ubaldo are ready to depart in a boat, but Rinaldo is having second thoughts; leaving Armida seems heartless. Ubaldo sarcastically upbraids him (‘Torna, schiavo infelice’), and Rinaldo expresses his confusion (‘Ah, non lasciarmi, no’). armida enters, and begs Rinaldo either to take her with him, or kill her. This is the cause for a dramatic trio, ‘Strapparmi il cuor dal seno’, which ends with the Christians sailing off and Armida collapsing on the beach. Armida’s attendants rescue her; in a dramatic scene, ‘Io con voi la nera face’, she calls upon the gods to destroy the island, and pursues Rinaldo in a chorus drawn by dragons. “His agony will serve forever as a warning to all who are ungrateful,” sing Armida and the chorus. “It is of hellish effect, of course ad locum,” Salieri wrote, “and a proper finale to an opera which is almost entirely of the diabolical sort.”
Obviously Rousset’s recording: Lenneke Ruiten (Armida), Florie Valiquette (Rinaldo), Teresa Iervolino (Ismene), and Ashley Riches (Ubaldo), with Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset, Paris, 2020. Published Aparte, 2021.
- Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Salieri: Rival of Mozart, ed. Theodore Albrecht, The Philharmonia of Greater Kansas City, 1989
- Volkmar Braunbehrens, Maligned master: The real story of Antonio Salieri, New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1992
- Marina Mayrhofer, “Armida (1771)”, Armida, cond. Rousset, 2021
- Emmanuelle and Jérôme Pesqué, “An auspicious beginning”, ibid.
- Christophe Rousset, “Mozart versus Salieri: two early operas show just how talented both composers were”, Gramphone, 15 February 2021