Wexford Festival Opera 2022 Review: Armida
Strong Cast Led By Jennifer Davis Unable to Rescue Dvorak’s Opera From Its Weak LibrettoBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Clive Barda)
Of Dvorak’s 10 operas, only “Rusalka” receives regular stagings outside his Czech homeland. Listening to the recordings of his other operas, it is not clear as to why this should be the case. Certainly, the dramatic quality of the music is strong and contains plenty of engaging melodies, and they would certainly bear comparison with many operas that are staged with tedious regularity. Maybe their neglect is due to the fact that they do not translate successfully onto the stage. However, given that there are so few opportunities to make such a judgment, it is difficult to know.
Fortunately, thanks to its adventurous programming, Wexford Festival Opera presented his final opera, “Armida,” at this year’s festival, giving opera-goers a rare opportunity to judge for themselves whether or not this opera at least has been unjustly neglected.
The first thing to say is that the title itself does not work in its favor. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Armida, a character from Torquato Tasso’s text, “Gerusalleme Liberata,” was a popular subject for librettists, with its central themes of love, magic, and war being ideal for the audience of the day. Many operas bear her name, including works by Lully, Sacchini, Gluck, Salieri, and even somewhat belatedly, Rossini. Many more included her in the narrative.
By the time Dvorak got around to his version in 1904, the world had moved on; verismo was now the rage, and audiences wanted realism. Armida was no longer of interest; it was old-fashioned. Why Dvorak thought that Jaroslav Vrchlicky’s libretto on the subject would be suitable is a mystery.
While this may explain the opera’s initial reception and its fall into near oblivion, it does not explain why it has since failed to be resurrected, especially in an era that makes a virtue of uncovering works from the past, notwithstanding the many companies that continue with the same old fare.
Dramatically Inconsistent Libretto
Everything started very well. Under the direction of Hartmut Schörghofer, who also acted as set and costume designer, Act one proved to be well-balanced, dramatically gripping, and populated with clearly defined characters. The scene was set unambiguously in the Middle East using traditional sets and costumes. The simple, transparent paneled framework of the sets could be moved easily to create changing perspectives, and D.M. Wood’s lighting designs created a warm glow that enveloped the stage, conjuring up the colors of the region. The time simply flew by!
However, from Act two onward, the sharp focus of the first act disintegrated. The structure of the libretto became noticeably unbalanced, to the extent that the pace of the narrative became disconcertingly disjointed, which negatively affected the dramatic thrust and undermined its overall impact. Carefully developed scenes, constructed successfully to draw in the audience, were concluded in a perfunctory manner; their lengthy buildups, in which the tensions had been well managed, were given insufficient space and time to dissipate. It was all over too quickly! Its impact was unsettling to the extent that, at the end of the scene or act, one’s thoughts immediately focused on this negative aspect.
Act two was structurally the strongest of the remaining acts, so that each dramatic section was clearly developed and played out, although without ever attaining the structural sharpness, sureness, and drive of the first act. It has plenty to offer; there are energetic choruses, dramatic incidents, and a fiery conclusion.
However, in Act three, the sense of imbalance asserted itself more forcefully, and the drama became increasingly unconvincing. Following a lengthy period of insipid love-making, replete with nymphs and sirens, there was a dramatically strong confrontation between Armida, Rinald, and Ismen, only for the act to take another turn and disconcertingly hurtle at break-neck speed towards its unsatisfactory conclusion, which was not allowed to fully expand or flourish.
The same process is repeated in Act four. In a dramatically and musically captivating extended monologue that dominates the act, Riauld reflects on the events that have just taken place and on his dreams for the future. The mood that has been expertly crafted is then shattered by Ismen’s arrival. Within a matter of minutes, Rinauld has not only killed him but also mortally wounded a mysterious knight, only to discover that it is Armida. Fortunately, Dvorak partially rescues the perfunctory finale with a pleasing duet for the lovers before she dies.
Simply put, “Armida” is an unbalanced work. There exists a disconnect between Dvorak’s superbly constructed score and Vrchlicky‘s second-rate, structurally flawed libretto. Dvorak’s music is a rich, symphonic tapestry, brilliantly orchestrated with engaging melodies dedicated to developing the passions and emotions of the characters, and forwarding the narrative, while the libretto is left in its wake. Dvorak is often left alone to manage the dramatic intensity, which Vrchlicky was not always able to furnish.
The extent to which Schörghofer is partly responsible for the staging’s dramatic shortcomings is, however, difficult to assess. His traditional reading was well-staged, and even the magic elements, which were included through the use of videos, were impressive; Act two ends with a dragon descending. Visually, there were certainly no problems.
Nor is it possible to blame Schörghofer for imposing a false reading onto the narrative; his only deviation was to present a background video of tanks careering across the desert, and even that fits with the magic of prophecy. Maybe it required a director who could address the libretto’s structural defects, if that is, indeed, even possible.
Baxa’s Excellent Reading
The musical side of the production was under the direction of Norbert Baxa, who elicited an energetic presentation from the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera. He successfully drew out the beauty of Dvorak’s score, revealing its pleasing textures and wonderful melodies, whilst keeping a firm hold on the dramatic and emotional currents that sweep through the work. He also gave sufficient attention to the singers so that there was always a pleasing balance between the pit and the stage, which, given the differences in the power of the singers’ voices and the dynamic shifts in the orchestra, was no easy task.
Davis’ Standout Performance
From her initial entrance, soprano Jennifer Davis dominated the stage with a confident performance that successfully brought Armida’s feisty, passionate character to life. She possesses a resonant, versatile, and secure voice with a wonderful burnished luminosity, which she used expertly to imbue her lines with emotional strength. The voice is totally secure; one can sit back, relax, and enjoy the voice as it soars upward, singing out above the rising sound of the orchestra, without even a suggestion that it will fray or falter. It is a truly marvelous instrument.
While she immediately captured the audience’s attention with her beautiful, lyrically sensitive rendition of her opening aria, it was the duets that really stood out. The Act 2 love duet with Rinald, played by tenor Gerard Scneider, was passionately delivered by both singers, who were fully immersed in their roles. Likewise, the Act three duet allowed them to give voice to their ardent feelings for each other as the two singers once again combined to brilliant effect.
Schneider produced a good performance with a bold, courageous, and energetic, if occasionally one-dimensional, portrait of Rinald. Along with the duets with Armida, it was his Act four monologue, in which he brilliantly captured a meandering range of emotions with his expressively engineered phrasing, that really impressed.
Baritone Stanislav Kuflyuk was excellent as Ismen. He possesses a voice with an attractive timbre coated in a warm sheen, and sings with an engaging lyricism. It is a voice that draws the listener in; his colorful pallet, ease of expression, and ability to fill out the space cannot fail to capture the attention. Moreover, he knew exactly how to use his voice to effectively define his character.
Bass Jozef Benci made a splendid King Hydraot. Singing with strength and plenty of character, he wore his magisterial authority with ease.
Bass Jan Hynk displayed quality with a compelling performance as Petr the hermit. In what was an expressive presentation, he used his voice skillfully by adding coloring, depth, and emotional nuance to the vocal line.
Baritone Rory Dunne was cast in two parts. As the Muezin, he was positioned high up in the auditorium so that his call to prayer echoed powerfully around the theatre. As the leader of the Franks, Bohumir, he produced a suitably authoritative performance.
Tenor Josef Moravec, essaying the role of Sven, made a good impression with his performance at the end of Act three.
The relatively small roles comprising tenor Thomas Birch as the knight Roger, baritone Andrii Kharlamov as Gernand, soprano Libuse Santorisova as a Siren and as a Nymph, tenor Chris Mosz as Dudo, and bass Josef Kovacic as Ubald all produced quality performances.
The Chorus Master Andrew Synnott did a fine job in preparing the Chorus of the Wexford Festival Opera. Singing superbly throughout, the highpoint was definitely the rousing crusaders’ chorus, whose electrifying rendition brought Act two to a thrilling conclusion.
Six weeks after its 1904 premiere, Dvorak died. He was denied the opportunity to revise his final opera, something he surely would have undertaken given its lackluster reception.
Watching Wexford Festival Opera’s production, it is clear that “Armida” is, indeed, a flawed work. The music was excellent, the singers were excellent, visually it was easy to follow, and the staging was pleasing on the eye. Yet as a dramatic work, it is weak. There exists an imbalance within Acts two, three and four which has a disconcerting and disrupting effect. Moreover, there is a disconnect between the music and the text, which distances the audience.
If Dvorak had had time to make the necessary revisions, we may have been left with a masterpiece. As it is, we have been left with his fabulous music sitting awkwardly alongside a weak libretto.