An army of Christian soldiers and an exotic, beautiful sorceress. Devils and nymphs. A dreadful forest and an enchanted garden. No less than six tenor roles and one towering title heroine... Rossini's Armida combines the opportunity for extraordinary visual magic with striking musical challenges. The opera has its Met premiere on April 12, in a production directed by Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman. Star soprano Renée Fleming adds the title role to her Met repertory, with Riccardo Frizza conducting. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee sings Rinaldo, Armida's lover and victim. To imagine the otherworldly realm of Rossini's fanciful tale, Zimmerman is collaborating with the set and costume designer Richard Hudson, who created the sets for Julie Taymor's production of The Lion King.
"It's like coming across a buried treasure under the sea, a box of jewels," the director says of discovering Armida, which was inspired by the 16th-century epic Gerusalemme Liberata ("Jerusalem Delivered") by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso. Set in the time of the crusades, it tells of a seductive sorceress who lures Christian soldiers to her island prison. "We're trying to use simple methods of old-time theater in the way the opera instructs you to," Zimmerman continues. "All the theatrical enchantment that the libretto and score call for: the power of change and transformation: is a mirror of the sorceress's power."
To that end, designer Hudson has created a vivid and magical world complete with seas of red poppies, giant spiders, brightly colored parrots, and other dazzling visual elements. The work of lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and choreographers Graciela Daniele and Daniel Pelzig helps ensure that the magical images let the opera's dramatic and musical riches take center stage.
"Armida's passions run deep and are expressed to every histrionic and vocal extreme," Fleming says of the role. "One of the greatest joys of performing is inhabiting a character who lies in total opposition to who I am. A man-destroying sorceress has captured the creative imagination of many writers and composers, not to mention interpreters." In Fleming, Armida has its most passionate contemporary champion. "She led us to this opera," Zimmerman says, "and it's a revelation."
Armida plays April through May 15.
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