Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 32 minutes.
May Day this year marked the 115th anniversary of the death of Antonín Dvorak, so I finished up this review of his final opera as well as Rusalka. The recording included here is an 1956 Supraphon release with Milada Šubrtova, Ivo Zidek, and Zdenek Otava conducted by Vaclav Jiracek, although I would strongly urge that the 1996 live performance recording conducted by Gerd Albrecht for Orfeo makes a much stronger argument for the opera, and amplifies parts of the score that are closely related to his previous opera Dimitrij, even if it is cut by around five minutes. Armida was not just the last opera by Dvorak, it was the last piece of music that he completed, although he left multiple other pieces in various incomplete states at the time of his death 37 days later.
SETTING: Damascus, 1090s. The main characters are Armida (soprano) a Muslim sorceress and daughter of King Hidraot of Damascus (bass) who is engaged to evil wizard Ismen (baritone) but is in love with the Frankish knight Rinald (tenor) whom she has first seen in a dream. She abducts him, technically in order to sow discord among the Franks but ultimately because she wants to seduce him, and sets him up in her magical Palais de Plaisir before Ismen gets the Crusaders to take Rinald back with a magic shield.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: The gardens of the royal palace, Damascus. (36 minutes)
0: The overture ** starts off with some witchy angst before turning more romantic and finally into a war between a solemn and holy theme in the brass and a repeated whirl from the strings, winds, and cymbals. This deflates and gives way to a gentle dawn over the encampment sort of bit before ending. A surprisingly delicate and complex piece.
7: K čtyřem úhlům světa After a rhubarb feminine opening chorus, the call of the Muezzin to prayers ** with its choral backing, creates the first Orientalist element in the score. A very effective, setting establishing opener.
13, 21: Jak mohla by mě také milovat/Ty zjevne neobrojis Hidraot and Ismen come on discussing what to do with the invading Frankish army, the latter expounds this in a brief monologue * to a mildly climatic arioso which is followed by more dialogue and finally a longer monologue for Ismen in which he contemplates his desire of Armida ending on an inflamed out-burst from the orchestra *. Much of the rest of the scene is a little ornery, Hidraot in particular makes little impression but he disappears after this act so it is of no matter. It is decided that Armida will be enticed to sow chaos among the Franks in order to stop them from going further on their way to Jerusalem.
22: Za štíhlou gazelou Armida arrives and delivers a series of brief but lovely ariosos ** which get broken up by the two men (this is a little annoying musically but needed to forward the plot). Ismen takes a long time to talk her into the plot he and her father have cooked up. At first she has absolutely no interest in it at all and he gets angry with her.
30: Odešel, jen se mih Armida asks not to go through with any of this *. Ismen presents an image of the Christian camp, thus providing for a choral number: first part female, second part male. She sees Rinald and desires him, conceding to the plot for this reason alone.
34: Ne divů tvojich strašnou mocí The act finale starts with a good trio ensemble ** and the act ends with the Muezzin calling Allah Al-Akbar in Czech before the curtain falls. Effective.
ACT 2: The Christian Camp near Damascus. (40 minutes)
1: Při tělu tvém We meet the Christians, who are your standard convention triumphal Christians. If anything a little too four-square and rather mid-19th century, but a star nevertheless *. The orchestral framing is a bit more modern. Five Frankish knights arrive and give us the impression that Armida need not come: chaos already infects the Christian camp. Fanfares, a Harald arrives and gives the most Wagnerian message. More fanfare.
8: Ó, smilování mějte Armida arrives as if in persuit * and begs for sanctuary from the Knight Dudo, telling him that she is the daughter of a recently dethroned king and has been left in the desert by the usurper who has murdered her brother.
9: Ó, srdce, ztiš svůj tlukot smělý A magnificently beautiful romance for Armida ***. She is then upbraided by the grumpy Peter the Hermit who sees right through her.
16: Jak tady spor Rinald arrives ** and is immediately enchanted by Armida, and takes her to the Crusader inner council meeting much to the protests of Peter in a pleasant trio.
23: Mně jímá divně krásy její zář! The Council meeting is rather ordinary until Armida arrives and is praised by the Crusaders for her beauty * in a gorgeous but very brief choral passage.
25: Slyš, z hlubin bídy svojí She goes into her frightful, and fictive, backstory * for the Crusader leader Bohumir: usurper blinded and imprisoned her father and killed her brother leaving her in the desert to die. Will the Crusaders take the city of Damascus and restore her father? Bohumir refuses because he wants to take Jerusalem first.
32: Mně nelze čekat dél The first full scale love duet ** as Rinald decides to disobey orders and help Armida. They are interrupted by Peter the Hermit who tries to stop them as they prepare to flee the Crusader camp but Ismen appears with a chariot driven by dragons (I am not making this up!) and spirits the lovers away as the Crusaders come on for a rousing finish.
ACT 3: The magic garden of Armida. (42 minutes)
0: Dvorak goes all lush on us here ** (strings, woods, horns, pianissimo cymbals, harp). The first half of the act is taken up by a series of long monocants and choruses: the first two are very long songs, one for a soloist soprano Siren, the other a chorus of Nymphs, that entertain Rinald and Armida, who punctuate the proceedings with their occasional comments and lover talk.
9: Jen niz, jen niz A glorious love duet *** for Armida and Rinald which gets cut short by what appears to be a ballet and yet another chorus of nymphs.
14: Na prahu děsných This is ended by a long monologue full of Oriental wizardry for Ismen *, who has decided that he wants to break up Rinald and Armida. He enters into a competition with her, trying to destroy her pleasure garden until it becomes apparent that her love has caused her magical powers to amplify and he is unable to defeat her.
20: Pojď, večer již Rinald awakens and sings of his love for Armida **, this quickly turns into a trio. Rinald eventually asks Ismen who the heck he is and he reveals that his is the betrothed of Armida and his rival. Armida protests this and they fight.
27: Poutníku, jenž pouště prachem The best chorus ** shows up at this point as Ismen contemplates what to do next. Two of the knights, Sven and Ubald, come on at this point having gotten lost and are told by Ismen to find a shield, apparently belonging to Michael the Archangel and use its magnetism to steal Rinald out of the pleasure garden. This is mostly ornery.
33: Tiše, tiše větřík dýše A chorus of sirens comes on * as the two knights get the shield and use it to attract Rinald away from Armida.
39: Jen odvrať zrak Armida attempts to intervene but fails *, her powers weaken under the stress of her unhappiness and Ismen is able to collapse her pleasure palace. A rousing finish to the act from the orchestra.
ACT 4: An oasis in the desert (31 minutes)
2: Sám, v poušti sám The act opens with a sobering and mildly menacing, if brief, prelude. We come upon a wounded Rinald who embarks upon yet another long monocant *, this time about guilt. It warms up by the end and has a moderate climax. He passes out from his wound sustained in battle against the Moors (surprise attack apparently) and is discovered by the knights and Peter the Hermit who go on for the longest time ending in an incredibly weird chorus of Christians which is halfway between the Venusberg music and the Pilgrims Chorus from Tannhauser.
18: Zas cítím v ňadrech Finally, Rinald starts to demonstrate having a pulse *.
24: Armido má! The remainder of the opera consists of two dialogues in which Rinald sequentially kills Ismen (furious, all of around two minutes, and giving the impression that it was composed in a hurry) and Armida (the latter while disguised as a man and musically far more developed **) ending with a final chorus for the Christians as Rinald cradles her body in his arms. A poignant if strange ending.
Armida opened to extremely poor reviews. No one could believe that Dvorak was capable of producing a piece of dreck like this (especially after Rusalka against which it can only unflatteringly be compared). What is more, the theatre that produced it did a shoddy job of both stage direction and set design. Yet the problems started at the very beginning of composition: Dvorak aborted two attempts at starting the opera, which ultimately took more than twice the amount of time it took for him to write his two previous operas. During the rehearsal period, he had threatened to withdraw the score and even walked out of the theatre during rehearsals out of fears that the thing was irredeemably dreadful. The dress rehearsal was aborted because the tenor singing Rinald became indisposed at the last minute. The premiere was basically a disaster: the musicians were under-rehearsed, how could it be otherwise? By the end of the performance, the audience did display some appreciation for the music Dvorak had written (possibly due to the poignancy of the finale), but he had already left the theatre for the night, certain the performance had been a fiasco. The premiere was on 25 March, 1904; Dvorak died on 1 May, 1904 of undisclosed causes after a case of influenza. Certainly the disaster of his last completed work was a factor.
So did the opera deserve this? Well, yes and no. Analysis of the opera by others is very dense and complex, involving features ranging from Orientalism, eroticism, the usage of leitmotifs, and orchestral advancement. Sometimes these critiques are contradictory. The libretto is universally acknowledged as awful with a pathetic rhyming scheme which is readily obvious to anyone who can understand Czech. Reviving a story that hadn’t been used for nearly ninety years (by Rossini) was also probably not a great idea, especially one that had no connection to Slavic themes (the main inspiration for Dvorak generally). Dvorak himself acknowledged problems during production such as when he tried to get his librettist to condense the opera from four acts to three but was rejected. This might have helped matters given that each act is rather episodic and isolated with the third act being essentially a ballet divertissement and the fourth act having little to do with the rest of the opera other than involving the same main characters and killing off two out of three of the main characters. In many ways Dvorak is out of his element with a middle eastern theme which probably led to the composer playing it too safe with conventionality and even retrograde elements (there are only traces of music here that remind us that we are actually in the 20th century, it is otherwise solidly in a late-19th century world heavily influenced by both middle period Wagner and the unique Dvorak style), although there is some evolution in the orchestration (especially, rather ironically, attempts at Orientalism which are rather successful even if they are similar to Dimitrij at times) and some of the arias for Armida herself are similar to better soprano music in Rusalka, probably because this opera was created mostly as a gift to the soprano who had originated Rusalka, Ruzena Maturova. What we have here is mostly a standard soprano vehicle with good characterization given to its baritone villain and tenor hero but also some rather dull choruses for the Christians, which is odd given that Dvorak was a devout Roman Catholic. His love duets for Armida and Rinald are better than the rather sedate affair between Vanda and Slavoj, so at least there is that, although it seems as if musical sexy time just wasn’t within the capacity of the composer. Okay, except for Dimitrij! Ultimately the product is not up to the same level as Rusalka, but it is hardly terrible either. Beta.
Armida from the Antonin Dvorak Website: http://www.antonin-dvorak.cz/en/armida. (links to Czech-language libretto).
Armida entry in The New Penguin Opera Guide ed. Amanda Holden, contributor John Tyrrell. London: Penguin Books, 2001. p. 257.