‘Armida': O Voice, Where Art Thou?

armida fleming and brownlee 3322 Armida: O Voice, Where Art Thou?A recurring phrase in Rossini’s Armida, about a sorceress and her ill-fated love for a Christian soldier during the Crusades, is “Dove son io?”—“Where am I?” It was a question I kept asking myself, with increasing incredulity, as the opera wore its way through its rocky Metropolitan Opera premiere on Monday night.

There was another question on my mind, too: Why? Why program, market, rehearse and pay for an opera that depends on bel canto—beautiful singing—when that’s something not a single member of the cast can consistently provide?

The answer, pretty much, is the star soprano Renée Fleming, who plays the sorceress Armida. She had a major success in the role early in her career, in 1993. A live recording even resulted, which attests to the power and charisma of that performance.

Ms. Fleming clearly intended this Met production to be a vehicle that would recapture some of the magic of that early run. Seventeen years later, though, things have completely changed. It’s this simple: Ms. Fleming currently lacks the voice to properly perform the role, and she shouldn’t be singing it when people have paid a lot of money for tickets. Not that the part of Armida is a walk in the park; indeed, it’s notoriously difficult. But that just makes it all the more shocking that she—or anyone at the Met—didn’t know better.

Armida’s charms, irresistible to most of the men in the opera, are vocally driven. Her elaborate coloratura—the runs, trills and other fancy stuff—parallels her dazzling illusions—the soldiers’ love, a magic garden. It’s impossible to create the character, in other words, without singing the notes. Yet Ms. Fleming simplified some of the coloratura; most of it was just barely suggested. Sometimes she would whip her whole body during a fast run, as if physically willing her larynx to cooperate. (It usually didn’t.) The top of her voice was unhinged; the bottom was inaudible, unless she ripped into her chest voice. That can be an exciting effect, but not when it’s all you’ve got. Even the part of her voice that’s always been her strong suit—a meltingly plush middle—deserted her, and sounded edgy and empty. Her big second-act aria, “D’amore al dolce impero,” was met with a fate worse, coming from a Met audience, than boos: the shortest, most tepid applause I’ve ever heard for a prima donna showpiece.

All in all, through much of this roller coaster of a part, Ms. Fleming seemed like she was hanging on for dear life. The same was true of the six (!) tenors who share the stage with her. No one looked or sounded happy, not even Lawrence Brownlee (playing Armida’s lover, Rinaldo), whose voice is sweet but way too small.

In the absence of vocal glamour, which provides much of the drama in operas of Rossini’s era, Mary Zimmerman, the director, was hard pressed to make the piece work. The only tone she seemed interested in was “cute,” from the winsome girl dressed as Cupid to the oversize dragonflies and parrots hanging around Armida’s magical garden to the second-act ballet featuring the sorceress’ demon minions pirouetting around in tutus. And while such gentle storybook surrealism is one way to go, it hardly captures the work’s eroticism or politics or deeper emotions—its complexities.

Indeed, Ms. Zimmerman, for all her academic credentials (she teaches at Northwestern), does not always seem interested in the complexities of the works she directs. Her last two operas for the Met—Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in 2007, and Bellini’s La Sonnambula last year—each had a single, largely visual concept. Lucia was updated to the Victorian era; La Sonnambula took place among a present-day opera company rehearsing (you guessed it!) La Sonnambula. Neither concept went deep enough, though; each seemed to be the result of “it sure would be cool if …” brainstorming rather than an organic, comprehensive approach to the opera.

For Armida, she has set the action around the time of the opera’s composition, in the early 19th century; the unit set is a large, semicircular white wall with a series of open doorways and neo-Classical moldings. Yet she doesn’t demonstrate any really compelling reason for this choice. It’s not as if, for instance, Ms. Zimmerman highlights the Orientalism of the period in the interaction of an Arab temptress and swooning Christian soldiers. In this production, though her servants are dressed in full Middle East regalia, Armida is dressed like a European, sidestepping the tensions the opera creates from her cultural difference. (Perhaps this, rather than Sonnambula, would have been the production to update to our times, when the clash of East and West is once again all too relevant.)

In the end, though, the opera isn’t about the clothes, be they Arab or European, or the visual effects. Despite its mythic and spectacular garb, Armida, like so much of Rossini, is ultimately concerned with the human beings behind the grandiose costumes. By now, after a generation of renewed appreciation for the composer’s dramatic gifts, it should be clear even to Ms. Zimmerman that his gift was to consistently undermine the “spectacular” aspects in favor of the very human emotions and conflicts that keep pushing through all the glitz. With those passionate emotions both musically and dramatically underserved in the Met’s production, it’s no wonder that even the now-obligatory boos for the director were just lukewarm.