The tale of Rinaldo the Crusader knight caught in the toils of the sorceress Armida had been popular with composers long before the 25-year-old Rossini created his version for Naples in 1817. A born rationalist, he probably wouldn’t have considered the subject had it not been for an amorous entanglement that summer on the island of Ischia with his Armida-to be, the soprano Isabella Colbran, and a demand from the recently rebuilt Teatro San Carlo for a three-act visual feast designed to show off the theatre’s state-of the-art stage machinery.
Expensive to produce and requiring a charismatic lead singer possessed of rare coloratura skills, the opera was more often cannibalised for its choicest numbers than actually staged. A further disincentive was the erroneous belief that it required six coloratura tenors. Since two of the comprimario roles are doubled, the actual number is four.
Finding a quartet of gifted tenors is no longer a problem, as Garsington Opera proved in 2010 when it gave Armida its first UK staging, and as Flanders Opera demonstrates here. It helps that the veteran Rossini conductor and scholar Alberto Zedda – rising 88 and still ablaze with enthusiasm for the music – knows where the young talents are. His four tenors, led by Enea Scala’s vocally gifted and physically imposing Rinaldo, are all first-rate.
The young Spanish soprano Carmen Romeu is a musically accomplished Armida, though an insipid production and even more insipid costuming mean that she is no sorceress. Even Maria Callas, the 20th century’s most compelling Armida, would have been hard-pressed to execute her final apocalyptic Ride with the Furies dressed as a 1950s housewife.
The production is silly rather than offensive – witness the ‘fearful wood’ in Act 2 where Rinaldo and the demons appear dressed as footballers. As to visual spectacle, there is none. To be fair to Flanders Opera, it would probably take the resources of the New York Met to stage Armida as Rossini and his collaborators originally conceived it, though, worryingly, director Mariame Clément barely seems able to get her cast and chorus on and off the stage efficiently. The ballet is included but the movement is risible. Heard on CD, this would be a decently sung, stop gap Armida. As a DVD it’s a non starter.