Wednesday, June 16, 2010
The rebroadcast itself was like the echo heard by Ubaldo and Carlo, and one could enter this pleasure garden with surprising ease.
But the event brought up some questions. The original Met audience broke into applause at the end of the act one quartet “Sventurata! Or Che Mi Resta...” to acknowledge how great soprano Renée Fleming’s sounded within a complex ensemble. Their applause brought up a dilemma: should a movie theater applaud an illusion?
The answer was unresolved. A few people clapped unapologetically but were alone. All evening this produced a fascinating sense of awkwardness.
Ubaldo and Carlo also pulled back from fantasy, even rejecting the seductions offered by a chorus of nymphs, in order to stay focused on their identities and on their role within the event. They enjoyed the gardens but kept a firm grip on the wheel. We as an audience seemed to follow them.
Armida is about the interplay of identity, and particularly the temptation to renounce the schedules, plans, and goal-oriented functions that unfold at the level of community and swallow our ability to have fun; to relax and enjoy sensuality.
Act one of Armida centers on a duet (Amor!...Possente Nome!) between Armida (Fleming) and Rinaldo (Lawrence Brownlee) where E-flat major and spiraling coloratura bump the trajectories and plans of both characters. These characters sing about love, but were more in flight than in love. When the crowd turns against Rinaldo for killing the angry Gernando, Armida uses magic to conjure a storm so that she and Rinaldo can escape.
Act Two has a parenthetical feel and was framed in motion with a dance of the furies on one side and a gorgeous and clever 20-minute ballet (in which Armida and Rinaldo are spectators like us) on the other. A central duet between Rinaldo and Armida and Armida’s solo “theme and variations” aria “D’Amore al dolce impero” developed the sense of attraction as physical intoxication and altered reality in the center of this relatively short act.
In act three, Ubaldo and Carlo do not rely on logic or law in their pleasure intervention: they show Rinaldo his own reflection in a shield. When he sees his new identity—how different it has caused him to become—he feels shame.
This moment is the other great transition in this opera and it is marked with a rare texture: a tenor trio. In the Terzetto “In Quale Aspetto Imbelle” three Rossini tenors sing simultaneously, and the masterstroke is that the ideas center on shame rather than more stereotypical ideals of heroism.
Rinaldo chooses to re-enter his life and proceed, clutching his memory of bliss, as if nothing had ever happened. Fortunately he seemed to have been forgiven for the second degree murder of Gernando in act one. It is easy to imagine a sequel to Armida where Ubaldo and Carlo are not interventionists but police perpetuating one last grand illusion, and facilitating a new identity for Rinaldo as an inmate.
For Armida the road back to her former identity remains unresolved. In her final aria, “Dove Son Io!...Fuggi...” she considers her options. The revenge she chooses is directed inward: she commits "magicide." Armida annihilates her pleasure palace, seeing to close off access to this dimension of her personality before she disappeared from view.
Hearing opera in a theater is not like being in the Met: multiple camera angles give hyper-real visual perspectives and the HD sound is good but lacks the rich edges of live sound. Still, because the events are rarely broadcast they do create a sense of anticipation. Hearing opera in a local community is an important privilege that has grown increasingly rare. Even if the production was couched in illusions it was very much worth sharing.