Tuesday 21 August 2007

Salzburg Festival: Armida, 18 August 2007

Joseph Haydn: Armida

Annette Dasch - Armida
Michael Schade - Rinaldo
Mocja Erdmann - Zelmira
Vito Priante - Idreno
Richard Croft - Ubaldo
Bernard Richter - Clotarco

Christof Loy (director)

Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (director)

Armida was perhaps the most important Salzburg production of 2007. This is not necessarily to say that it was the best; I am not qualified to say, only having seen four of the eight operas presented this year. But to stage with such justified confidence an opera by Haydn, arguably his finest, is a laudable thing indeed. Haydn's operas have been ignored for far too long, especially when one considers some of the highly dubious works from which the opera-goer can hardly escape. Haydn is not Mozart, of course, but then who is? His operas are full of musical interest and, whilst they lack Mozart's genius for characterisation, they are far from undramatic. Armida is certainly a superior work to any of Handel's bafflingly ubiquitous operas, which, whatever their intermittent musical finery, remain, with the possible exception of Giulio Cesare in Egitto, inherently undramatic. (Handel's great oratorios are another matter entirely.) But even Haydn's other music rarely draws in the crowds. It was something of a risk, then, for Jürgen Flimm to launch his tenure as Intendant with Armida, which had opened the Festival on 28 July. I am delighted to report from the final performance that the risk paid off handsomely. Flimm was clearly delighted too, since he ran onto the stage to present flowers not only to the singers but also to a good number of the Bewegungschor.

Ivor Bolton directed a strong musical performance. One might have wanted more tenderness at times, but Bolton knew where he was going, and took orchestra and singers with him. Structures were clearly and dramatically perceptible, and rhythms were securely pointed. I could not help but wonder, however, what magic a great Haydn conductor might have worked; still, we always have the old Dorati recording, with Jessye Norman et al. The woodwind of the Mozarteum Orchestra sounded as delectable as ever, and the strings for the most part avoided the harshness that has sometimes affected their tone in recent years. The one great mistake was to have the 'military' music played as if it were being heard on the radio, through loudspeakers. It simply sounded tame: more 'Listen with Mother' than a janissary threat. Perhaps it was Christof Loy's idea; from wherever the idea sprang, it should have been rejected.

Annette Dasch was most impressive in the title role. Not only was her line absolutely secure, she also proved herself a fine stage acrobat. Michael Schade was, if anything, even better as Rinaldo. (I must confess that I do not understand why the opera is not named after him; he seems the central character in every way.) Sweetness of tone was allied to the vacillating virility that is the character's dramatic hallmark. Not for a minute did he flag; the promise of his first, virtuosically militaristic aria, 'Vado a pugnar contento', was upheld and developed throughout the work.

Casting of the opera's three tenors had been conducted imaginatively. As revealed in the programme, three generations of singers had been chosen, so as to suggest Clotarco as the young Rinaldo, and Ubaldo as what he would become. This worked very well on stage, without hammering home the point. Richard Croft ably depicted the ambiguities of the commander Ubaldo, whilst the young Bernard Richter shone as Clotarco. He combined great beauty of tone with great strength, which he used sparingly to all the greater effect. I rather wished he had had more to sing, for his aria, 'Ah si plachi il fiero Nume' was a definite musical highlight. He looked every inch the brave yet sensitive soldier too. Mojca Erdmann employed a wealth of seductive wiles to tempt him from the Crusaders. Faced with a voice such as hers, one could well understand Clotarco's desertion, if indeed desertion it be: positive choice of love over war might be the apter description. And real love it did seem to be, from their heartfelt portrayal. In a very real sense, theirs was the more impressive tale. Vito Priante convincingly presented Idreno as the equally ambiguous counterpart to the 'Christian' Ubaldo.

Christof Loy's production was rather as one might have expected. Everything was very stylish, perhaps sometimes a little too much so. Trench coats were rather tiresomely in evidence; is it possible for a self-respecting piece of Regietheater to eschew them? And Ubaldo, as one might have predicted, sported Pinochet-like dark glasses and was confined to a wheelchair. Otherwise, abstraction was the general order of the day, with Armida's forest of enchantment represented by planks of wood rather than anything specifically magical. This did not really matter, since music can evoke far better than naturalistic scenery. The movement of the principals was well managed, as was Jochen Heckmann's choreography of the athletic Bewegungschor, who gave a very strong sense of the military world impinging upon the psychological. Good use was made of the wonderful space of the Felsenreitschule, which really drew the audience into the drama, whilst at the same time preserving a necessary distance.

This, as I said, was an extremely important production. It would be a splendid thing were it now to be seen elsewhere; it would be an even more splendid thing were it to lead to further productions. The world needs to know what a fine opera Armida is, and to allow itself to be further beguiled by more of Haydn's operatic riches.