Review: Fleming, 6 tenors lead rare Rossini at Met

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[April 20, 2010]  NEW YORK (AP) -- It takes six tenors and one phenomenal soprano to perform Gioachino Rossini's "Armida," which helps explain why the Metropolitan Opera didn't get around to mounting this glorious work for 193 years.

But there it was at last on the Met stage Monday night, in a new production by director Mary Zimmerman designed to showcase the considerable talents of Renee Fleming.

If Fleming's singing fell short of spectacular and if the production proved an uneasy mix of the inventive and the obvious, at least there was Rossini's music to revel in during a long evening (nearly four hours, including intermissions).

And those tenors! What a splendid crop, starting with Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo, leader of a group of 11th century Crusaders who have come to "liberate" Jerusalem only to run afoul of the sorceress Armida.

Brownlee, previously heard at the Met in two Rossini comedies, cuts a dapper figure with his newly slimmed-down form. His voice, while not large or penetrating, sounds at times as sweet as if dipped in honey, and he easily conquers the intricate bel canto line that rises well above high C.

The highlight of the evening -- and turning point of the opera -- is the trio in Act 3 for Rinaldo and the two Crusaders who have come to rescue him from Armida. Brownlee, teaming with Kobie van Rensburg (Ubaldo) and Barry Banks (Carlo), rises to heroic stature as he shakes off Armida's spell and rejoins his comrades.

Earlier, three other tenors got to display their talents. John Osborn sang with power and precision as Goffredo, the Christian commander; debuting Yegishe Manucharyan brought a velvety tone to his few lines as Eustazio, Goffredo's brother; and Jose Manuel Zapata showed off a bright, flexible voice as the jealous Gernando.

Amid all these high male voices (there are two smaller parts for basses), Rossini wrote a virtuoso role for the opera's only female singer. Armida is a complex creation -- part wicked sorceress, part woman deeply in love. Unlike many operatic heroines, she doesn't die at the end; instead, she flies into a rage and vows revenge.

Fleming, whose melting voice makes her a formidable interpreter in some parts of the repertory, has always had a fondness for bel canto. And "Armida" was important in her career: Her 1993 performance at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Italy, helped launch her rise to stardom.

But 17 years later, her voice lacks the body or the bite to do justice to the long, rapid lines -- filled with ascending and descending scales -- that form her character's music. Her soft-grained sound becomes limp and imprecise, and what should be show-stopping arias come and go with little impact.

The finest singing she did was in the three love duets with Brownlee, one in each act, where their voices blended together beautifully in quiet harmony.

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Without a star of Fleming's rank, the Met would never have taken a chance on "Armida," and there's much to like in Zimmerman's production. She responds to the fairy-tale elements in this opera with some ingenuity, as does her set and costume designer, Richard Hudson.

The basic set is a white, semicircular structure with arched doorways. Into this space a few props slide in or are dropped from the flies -- trees for an enchanted forest, exotic birds for Armida's garden. Armida and Rinaldo themselves make an entrance seated together in an ornate elevator that drops from the sky. The Crusaders' costumes are impressive, with full-length coats for the men in black and various shades of red. Armida herself wears a succession of gorgeous gowns.

In a final striking image, the stage is taken over by the pulsating wings of a large bat, as if ready to take off with Armida in pursuit of the Crusaders. Here one wished for more magic -- it would have been a splendid ending to have the creature rise up, carrying the sorceress away.

Some of Zimmerman's inventions seem extraneous. A female figure representing Love and a male creature symbolizing Vengeance lurk on top of the set and sometimes intrude upon the characters while they are singing. But all the motivation for the characters' actions is already in Rossini's music.

She also indulges in a bit of the same self-conscious parody that marred her production of Bellini's "La Sonnambula" last season: Loves hold up title cards announcing "The Ballet" and "The End," and Fleming uses a music stand with sheet music to "perform" her big second-act aria about the power of love.

The score includes a long ballet, which Graciela Daniele has choreographed with wit and charm.

Conductor Riccardo Frizza did a terrific job drawing out warm and lively playing from the Met orchestra that showed off the beauty and variety in Rossini's score.

"Armida," the eighth and last new production of the season, has nine more performances through May 15. The matinee on Saturday, May 1, will be transmitted live in HD to movie theaters around the world.


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[Associated Press; By MIKE SILVERMAN]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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