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For an opera long deemed Haydn’s finest, Armida (1784) is curiously neglected. The last to be written for his patron at Esterháza, it received more performances there than any other opera. And yet it has signally failed to set the pulse racing in modern times. One of its problems is dramaturgical: the plot is a series of static situations in which the same dilemmas are repeated over and over again without resolution.
What the Salzburg festival’s staging proves is that those dilemmas are frighteningly modern. This is an opera about the conflicting loyalties of domestic harmony and corporate duty – played out as a battle between Syrians and Crusaders. Based on the same source (a 16th-century poetic fantasy by Torquato Tasso) that inspired operas by Handel, Salieri, Lully, Gluck and Dvorák, it depicts the emotional quagmire of someone trying to free him/herself from the bonds of a compulsive, manipulative relationship.
Armida cries out for festival treatment, so it was an intelligent idea for Salzburg to follow its exhaustive 2006 Mozart survey with a Haydn curio – but not so intelligent to attempt it in the cavernous Felsenreitschule. Armida was written for a 400-seat court theatre, with a cast of six and no chorus. To fill Salzburg’s space, Christof Loy has felt obliged to inflate the opera into something it is not – an abstract drama featuring vast numbers of extras. Emotional intensity is squandered by having the dialogues played out across an epic stage, amid minimalist set and costume designs (Dirk Becker and Bettina Walter) that fail to differentiate between opposing forces. I usually like Loy’s work, and he handled his principals here sympathetically, but the context was all wrong.
He was also labouring with a cast and conductor who lack the star quality capable of transforming a worthy performance into a notable one. Ivor Bolton and the Mozarteum Orchestra kept the music moving along stylishly but unobtrusively. Annette Dasch’s Armida was not quite charismatic enough to fill such a large stage, in spite of her successful negotiation of Haydn’s heavy coloratura. Michael Schade’s Rinaldo and Richard Croft’s Ubaldo fared better, and Vito Priante was a formidable Idreno. The laurels were stolen by two younger singers in smaller roles, Mojca Erdmann and Bernard Richter.