Monday 8 February 2021

Exploring Antonio Salieri's early inspirations with Les Talens Lyriques' recording of his first opera seria, Armida

Salieri Armida; Lenneke Ruiten, Florie Valiquette, Teresa Iervolino, Ashley Riches, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset; Aparte
Salieri Armida; Lenneke Ruiten, Florie Valiquette, Teresa Iervolino, Ashley Riches, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset; Aparté

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Christophe Rousset's exploration of Salieri's operas continues with his first opera seria, a work full of the influences of his patron, Gluck

Having explored Antonio Salieri's three operas for Paris, Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques continue their journey through Salieri's operas with the composer's first opera seria, Armida, written for Vienna in 1771. On the Aparté label, Christophe Rousset conducts Les Talens Lyriques in Salieri's Armida with Lenneke Ruiten (Armida), Florie Valiquette (Rinaldo), Teresa Iervolino (Ismene) and Ashley Riches (Ubaldo) with the Choeur de chambre de Namur.

At the age of 16, Salieri was taken under the wing of composer Florian Leopold Gassmann and moved from his native Italy to Vienna, which would be Salieri's base until his death. The dominant force in Viennese opera at this period became Christph Willibald Gluck, notably with his series of reform works the ballet Don Juan (1761), Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), Alceste (1767) and Paride ed Elena (1771). Through Gassmann, the young Salieri came into contact with both Metastasio and Gluck; the librettist gave Salieri informal instruction and Gluck became an informal advisor, friend and confidante.

The circumstances of Salieri's commission for Armida remain somewhat obscure and it is by no means obvious why the 21-year-old composer, with only one opera (a comic one) under his belt, should get such a high profile commission. Marina Mayrhofer in her booklet article unpicks things admirably, involving masonic links and probable background manoeuvring by Gluck. 

Another intriguing link is that in 1777, Gluck himself would turn to the subject of Armida and Rinaldo by setting Philippe Quinault's libretto (originally written for Lully) for his fourth opera for the Paris Opera. Whilst the importance of French opera to the Viennese opera scene is brought out by the fact that Quinault's libretto for Armide was the inspiration for the Italian text of a one-act opera written by Tommaso Traetta for an Imperial marriage in Vienna in 1762 (one of only three occasions when this French-inspired Reform-minded Italian composer worked in the city).

For Salieri's Armida, librettist Marco Coltellini (Imperial theatre's house poet) takes a somewhat different approach. The opera begins in media res, Armida has already beguiled Rinaldo and transported him to her island. Act One is focused on Rinaldo's comrade Ubaldo who has come to rescue Rinaldo. Act Two is on Armida's island as their idyll is interrupted by Ubaldo and his magic shield which awakens Rinaldo, Act Three sees Armida struggling with her magic and Rinaldo escaping her, though at the crucial moment she faints and he leaves, which is not a very heroic departure! The opera ends with Armida going off in her chariot drawn by winged dragons, swearing revenge.

Whilst there are other elements in the mix, at first listen you sense Salieri's debt to Gluck (I have to confess that I am entirely unfamiliar with Gassmann's music). Whilst Mozart would refer to Salieri as Italian, Salieri came to regard himself as Viennese and very much the heir to Gluck. One of the Gluckian elements in the opera is the way that, though there are moment of action, the principal content is the sense of people reacting to off-stage events. And the whole has the same classical feel, gone are the moments of contorted drama leading to a highly wrought aria which was key to opera seria earlier in the century. Here we have more of a classical sense of dialogue and long scenes. 

There are choruses and dances, but the chorus does always play the sort of integral dramatic role that Gluck was give to it. And it is here that we sense Salieri's interest in other types of opera too, the drama of character on which Mozart would come to build, and don't forget that Le nozze di Figaro was only 15 years away (by 1771, the young Mozart had already written Mitridate, Re di Ponto showing that he already had grasp of the soon-to-be-old-fashioned opera seria genre).

Salieri opens act three with a terrific scene where Armida conjures magic, and it begins with a long scena with orchestral introduction which sets the scene evocatively. You sense the young composer had been learning lessons from moments like the opening of Act Two of Orfeo ed Euridice.  And the scene includes a terrific solo for Armida. Lenneke Ruiten makes a strongly etched Armida, the bright plangency of her voice bringing an intensity to the character.  She brings out Armida's anxiety and emotion, and all culminates in a terrific final aria full of the sort of bravura virtuoso moments which must have commended the young composer to his leading lady, yet it has a Gluckian dramatic impulse too.

One of the problems with the opera is that neither Armida nor Rinaldo appear in Act One, so that whilst there is scene where Ismene (Armida's confidante) summons demons to attack Ubaldo we never get close to the principals. This leaves Rinaldo as a somewhat passive character, even his release from Armida is effected by someone else (Ubaldo). Florie Valquette makes an elegant Rinaldo (the role was originally sung by a castrato), beautifully spinning the characters love arias, whilst relishing the heroic moments such as Rinaldo's aria which concludes Act Two, when he is finally recalled to his duty as a crusader. But even here, the role is elegant rather than swashbuckling. 

For real dash and drama we have to turn to the role of Ubaldo, who is the real action hero of the drama. Ashley Riches takes what the role gives him and runs with it, turning in a wonderfully vivid and engaging performance, full of drama and terrific passagework. At times it feels that it is Riches' Ubaldo who is driving the drama, and with a performance like this, who is complaining?

The final soloist is Terese Iervolino as Ismene, whose role is to be a sort of surrogate for Armida, particularly in Act One. Whilst Ismene's role in the drama can be somewhat secondary, Iervolino gives a fine performance and makes one enjoy her moments in the spotlight.

Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques really relish the opportunities that Salieri gives them, the opera is full of terrific orchestral moments. Rousset manages to combine a real sense of impulse and drama with classical poise, whilst he and the orchestra enjoy the varieties of textures brought by playing Salieri's music on period instruments (the orchestra uses strings, flutes, oboes, bassoons, orns and trombones). The choir too is on good form, taking the opportunities that Salieri gives it.

Salieri's reputation still suffers somewhat from the Amadeus effect. No, he wasn't Mozart but he forms an important link in opera's development. His work forms an important backgroup to late 18th century music in Vienna, and is proving to be more sophisticated and more rewarding than many people realised. 37 of Salieri's operas were staged in his lifetime from 1770 right through to 1804, that is from the year Mozart wrote Mitridate right through to the year before the premiere of Beethoven's first version of Fidelio. Salieri is the backdrop to a lot of operatic history, and this terrific performance gives us a chance to explore the young man's early inspirations. 

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) - Armida (1771) [2:05:00]
Armida - Lenneke Ruiten (soprano)
Rinaldo - Florie Valiquette (soprano)
Isemene - Terese Iervolino (mezzo-soprano)
Ubaldo - Ashley Riches (baritone)
Choeur de chambre de Namur
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset (direction)
Recorded July 2020, Philharmonie de Paris
Aparté AP244 2CDs [53:00, 72:00]

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