Sunday, May 23, 2010

Enjoying Armida

(I want to thank the Met for their fabulous archive which allows me to enjoy such photos as above...)

Ah, Renée. Your tenor made the wrong choice, don't you think? I certainly wouldn't choose honor and duty if you looked at me like that...

We went to see the encore HD broadcast of the Met's Armida production last Wednesday. The story seemed a tad silly to me at first (you'll want to read the synopsis for any of the rest of this post to make sense), and we really went just so that I can continue to indulge my crush on Renée, but after seeing the whole thing, I think there is more depth to it than I thought.

The first act began with Cupid being lowered to the stage on a silk...what do you call those? Is it a trapeze? I'm drawing a blank. It was pretty stunning on the screen and I would guess even more so live. They built a tall curved wall that served as part of the set for all three acts -- when I listened on the radio, the announcer said the idea was to shrink the stage in order to push the sound out.

After Cupid, it seemed the soldiers sang for an eternity (and a not very interesting eternity at that) about how they were not going to fight that day, but have "pity" instead and mourn their dead leader (perhaps it's the fault of the subtitles, but they sang that line over, and over, and over, solo and in chorus). The action was static and stiff, and I began to wonder both if I was going to like this, and if Renée were ever going to appear.

She did. She brought things to life with both her singing and acting (god, what she can do with those eyes...) although I have to also admit I spent most of the rest of the 1st act distracted by the buttons on her dress, and whether she might need any, er, help with them.

The fun begins in the second act, with Armida's demons/spirits/furies swirling around the stage, at times on all fours. The leader is the only one who seemed remotely scary to me; mostly, they seemed mischievous. And funny. Including when they dressed up in tutus for the ballet scene. Are the demons of hell supposed to be funny? More on that in a moment.

The 2nd act has the famous soprano aria, "D'Amore al Dolce Impero." So look. Renée says herself she's not a bel canto singer, and she takes on roles like this as a challenge to keep herself in good shape, and because they're fun. So I don't know why people criticize her when she herself says she's not an expert at bel canto -- singing like that is freaking hard and I certainly can't do it. Anyway, I thought she sounded fabulous; you can listen here, and I wish you could see her expressions, which to me totally sold the whole thing. Whatever she did with her voice and her expression when she sang the word "fecunde" in the second verse made me gasp and gulp and forget to breathe. Which is why I love Renée.

In the 3rd act everything literally goes to hell, when Rinaldo, the silly tenor (is there any other kind?) chooses honor and duty rather than love, and is literally, at least in this production, carried back to war by two soldiers.

So here's what I think about this story. The stage direction and the director's comments talk about this opera as being about the choice between love and revenge. They chose to personify love and revenge to draw this point out (revenge is the bare-chested jubilant dude in the middle). Armida's last aria is in fact about her struggle after Rinaldo leaves her, whether to choose love or revenge. She chooses the latter, and destruction ensues.

I don't think it's that simple though, and the rest of the staging seemed to bring that out. My cielo and I talked about this in the car on the way home.

The struggle before the love/revenge struggle is Rinaldo's decision to choose either love or honor/duty. Love -- in the opera as well as the staging -- is equated with sorcery, evil, trickery, women, desire, passion, the body, pleasure, beauty. When Armida shows up in the first act, the static and staid soldiers come alive, acting out their beating hearts with hands pounding on their chests. Wherever Armida's reign is, there is movement and laughter and silliness. Without her, the soldiers were boring, dull, lifeless.

Honor/duty -- to the crusade, to the war, to other soldiers -- is stiff (! -- but look at those uniforms!), dispassionate. Honor and duty are held to be pure, nothing like the magic, trickery, sorcery of Armida's realm. And since they are crusaders, all of these qualities are held to be Christian. To choose honor/duty is to choose to be Christian.

So to me, the conflict is not only love vs. honor, but also the sort of traditional patriarchal Christian completely messed up "body/passion/desire = evil" ideology vs. well, love. And I think Rinaldo makes the wrong choice (not just because I think he's an idiot for giving up this). And I think *the opera* thinks he makes the wrong choice. Why?

  • The crusaders are shown to be hypocrites. First, in the 1st act, Rinaldo defends his honor and ends up killing a man -- and is in danger of being punished for it until Armida calls up a storm and spirits him away. So honor is only defensible in certain (controlled?) contexts? Second, in the 3rd act, the two soldier buddies sent to rescue Rinaldo are highly condemning of all the magic of Armida's realm, which would include her small wand. Yet how do they find their way there? With some "prayed over" paper instructions and a REALLY. BIG. STICK. (Paging Dr. Freud).
  • Armida brings things to life, as mentioned before. The crusaders are de facto instruments of death.
  • Now about those silly demons: These creatures are a threat to NOTHING in the entire opera until love is spurned. They are present, certainly, but do no harm, until Rinaldo rejects Armida, and she sets the creatures to destroy everything (including her own realm).
To me that last point is really key. I think the opera may be trying to make the point that it is love that gives us life, love that holds evil in check, and when we do not choose love, destruction (of the pleasure palace, or of war) is the inevitable result. Rinaldo makes the wrong choice.

I love opera.

By the way, Lawrence Brownlee was amazing. He's the real deal for sure. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 of the Act 3 tenor trio show him off finely.

I'm looking forward to the 2010-2011 season (view the online brochure here)!