Monday 25 January 2021

Rinaldo and Armida: from Monteverdi to Rossini to Dvorak to Judith Weir, composers have been inspired by Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata

Lully's Armide at the Palais-Royal Opera House in 1761, watercolor by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin
Lully's Armide at the Palais-Royal Opera House in Paris in 1761, watercolour by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin

In 1627, Claudio Monteverdi was busy at work on a new small-scale dramatic work for the wedding celebrations of Duke Odoardo Farnese of Parma and Margherita de' Medici. Armida Abbandonata was to be a work akin to Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, with the story coming from the same source, Torquato Tasso's epic poem Gerusalemme liberata. In the event, the performance did not take place, and scholars are divided as to whether Monteverdi's Armida Abandonata was ever performed, whilst no trace of the music survives.

The story of Armida and Rinaldo, however, would continue into operatic history and composers through to Rossini (in 1817), Dvorak (in 1904) and Judith Weir (in 2005) would be inspired by the same subject. What is fascinating about the list of operas based on the story of Armida and Rinaldo is not the long list of composers (there were plenty of other subjects common in the 18th century), but that so many of the operas have some sort of currency today. Lully's Armide (1686) and Handel's Rinaldo (1711) are almost commonplace in the operatic repertoire, whilst Gluck's Armide (1777), Salieri's Armida (1771), Haydn's Armida (1784) occupy that place where works are regarded as interesting even if infrequently performed, whilst Rossini's Armida retains a special place in his output.

The story tells of the Christian knight Rinaldo and the Saracen sorceress Armida who fall in love, with Armida transporting Rinaldo to her magical kingdom only for him to be rescued from her and to defeat the Saracens in battle. It has much in common with tragic stories such as Dido and Aeneas, and with characters from Ariosto's epic poem Orlando Furioso. Though perhaps because Armida's response is more fallible and more human, she is a somewhat sympathetic character, and the ending is suitably malleable, being either tragic or not according to the composer and librettist's desire.

Armida Discovers the Sleeping Rinaldo by Nicolas Poussin (1629). Cupid restrains her from stabbing her enemy.
Armida Discovers the Sleeping Rinaldo by Nicolas Poussin (1629)
Cupid restrains her from stabbing her enemy.

When Monteverdi wrote his opera, the poem on which it was based was relatively new. Torquato Tasso had first completed his epic poem Gerusalemme liberata in the 1570s (though he would continue to tinker with it throughout his life). And there is a link to that 1627 wedding, as the first complete edition of the poem was published in 1581 in Parma and Ferrara. 

The poem consists of 1917 stanzas grouped into 20 cantos of varying length and belongs to a long tradition of Italian epic poems with Tasso borrowing elements from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, which was first published complete in 1532. Both poems involve 'perfect' Christian knights in the war with the Saracens, yet bring in elements of romance and fantasy. The setting is, loosely, the First Crusade (1096-1099) which managed to capture Jerusalem and establish the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem (which lasted from 1099 to 1291).

The full plot of Gerusalemme liberata is centred on Geoffrey of Bouillon and the capture of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, but Tasso includes a number of romantic episodes and it is these which have captured the imagination, many involve heroes and heroines who have reappeared in works by later poets, writers, musicians and artists - the Christian maiden Sofronia, the warrior maiden Clorinda and her battle with the knight Tancredi, the princess Erminia who is in love with Tancredi, and of course Armida and Rinaldo.

The whole poem was immensely successful, but sections of it were also abstracted to create smaller works from madrigals to operas, as well as inspiring a multitude of pictures.

So who was Torquato Tasso? He was born into a noble family near Naples, in 1544 and his father was a secretary in the service of Ferrante Sanseverino, Prince of Salerno, but eventually, the Prince was exiled and Tasso's father followed his patron. So Tasso's youth was spent on the edge of noble poverty. His father was also a poet, (his epic Amadigi was published in 1560), but wanted Torquato to have a 'proper' career. However, a period of study of law in Padua ended with Torquato writing poetry. 

Despite the fame brought by Gerusalemme liberata and other poems, his life would be complex. His relationships with patrons were often fraught, particularly at the court of Ferrara. From the 1570s there are letters which detail not only Tasso's friendship with men involved in same-sex affairs but also his own love for a young man. Yet Tasso is also thought to have possibly had a compromising liaison with Leonora d'Este (the Duke of Ferrara's sister). Certainly, Tasso's behaviour was often over-wrought and he ended in near madness and may have been suffering from bipolar disorder, though some commentators argue that his confinement was a political act by the Duke of Ferrara. Tasso died at the age of 51 in 1595, his last 20 years sadly artistically unproductive.

Rossini: Armida - Jessica Pratt Garsington Opera 2010 (Photo Johan Persson)
Rossini: Armida - Jessica Pratt
Garsington Opera 2010 (Photo Johan Persson)
Whilst Monteverdi's opera seems to have been one of the first (if not the first) to be based on the Armida story, it was another opera which cast a long shadow. In 1686 Jean-Baptiste Lully and Philippe Quinault premiered Armide at the Paris Opera. The subject was chosen for Lully by King Louis XIV and the five-act opera came to be regarded as Lully's masterpiece, notable for the way Lully and Quinault develop Armide's character throughout the opera as she repeatedly tries, without success, to choose vengeance over love.

Quinault's libretto would have an influence on Aaron Hill's scenario for Handel's 1711 opera Rinaldo which premiered in London, and versions of the libretto would be set by composers such as Graun (1751) and Traetta (1761). Gluck would set Quinault's libretto direct (with some modifications) for his fifth production for Paris (in 1777). By setting the libretto originally created for Lully, Gluck was facing head-on the challenge of French tradition and showing that he regarded himself as its equal, and the opera was in production at the Paris Opera through to 1825. The opera would be one of those by Gluck that were championed by the young Berlioz, who saw several Gluck operas at the Paris Opera during the 1820s. Gluck's opera would continue to have remarkable currency into the 20th century with productions at the Paris Opera in 1866 and 1905, at La Monnaie in Brussels in 1905 and the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1910/11 conducted by Toscanini with a cast including Louise Horner and Enrico Caruso!

There is even a cantata by Brahms based on the story. Based on a dramatic poem by Goethe, Brahms laid the work aside in 1863 and only completed it in 1868 (after the success of Ein Deutsches Requiem). It remains one of Brahms' least-known works.

When in 1902, Dvorak started work on his final opera, it would be to Armida that he turned, much to the puzzlement of some of his contemporaries. Jaroslav Vrchlický's libretto is very much inspired by that of Philippe Quinault; in the 1880s Vrchlický had translated Tasso's poem into Czech and that had given him the idea for the libretto. He had sent it to Dvorak, who had done nothing with it and only when, 14 years later, Dvorak was casting around for a new libretto did he look at Armida. There is a sense that Dvorak chose it not because the subject appealed, but because he could find nothing better. Dvorak's musical style in the opera explored a more recent influence, that of Richard Wagner. 

The most recent Armida was Judith Weir's 2005 opera which debuted on Channel 4. Weir's libretto, loosely based on the story of Rinaldo and Armida, was updated to a modern Middle-Eastern conflict, with the two lovers played by Talise Trevigne and Kenneth Tarver, with the Continuum Ensemble conducted by Philip Headlam. The work received its stage premiere in Manchester in February 2019.

The poem had continued resonance in Italian popular culture too, being arranged as folk opera and puppet theatre, and until the 20th century, the poem was still recited from memory on the Tuscan countryside. 

Tasso's not undramatic life inspired plays by Giovanni Rosini (1776-1855), Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793), and Goethe (1749-1832), as well as Byron's Lament of Tasso. The first version of Franz Liszt's symphonic poem Tasso:lamento e trionfo was first performed as the overture to Goethe's Tasso during the poet's centenary year in Weimar. In 1833 Donizetti premiered his opera Torquato Tasso in Rome. Based loosely on the poet's life at the court of Ferrara, notably the liaison with Leonora d'Este; it is a meldodramma semiseria mixing serious and comic characters.


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