Last Saturday I returned from my early errands to find a mid-morning message on the phone from my uncle, who by happy coincidence also lives in Ithaca, New York a few miles from my house.: “Lump Lump, you’re going to come and pick me up about noon for the opera. Toodaloo.” My uncle has a nickname for almost everyone in his family. Apparently, I was a lumpy baby.
I reported this late and unexpected opera invitation to my wife and she agreed that this would be an excellent chance for me to spend an afternoon with my favorite uncle. She offered to assume all of the quartermastering that dominates the Saturdays of American families of four to let me spend four hours watching the simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Armida screened up at the multiplex.
I left the shopping bags on the kitchen floor and gave my uncle a call. Seemed that my aunt wasn’t feeling well and would have to miss the opera. I informed my uncle that I wouldn’t be able to pick him up, since my wife would be needing our only car for the long afternoon of soccer-momming she’d just signed up for.
I would cycle up to his old folks home, but couldn’t get there as early as he would have liked. “You have to get there an hour ahead of time to get a good seat,” my uncle insisted. He likes to get to things early. He’s eighty-three years old and has been slowing down of a late, his back giving him a lot of trouble that keeps him mostly in bed reading leftist periodicals; I’d visited him up at his old folks home a few days earlier and found him lying in bed reading CounterPunch.
He and my aunt live in place called Kendal at Ithaca, which is home to many retired professors. The old joke is that it’s got a better physics department than Cornell. There are also lots of lawyers like my uncle and doctors and others who’ve got a enough money to afford these excellent accommodations. Over the years I’ve given a couple of concerts up at Kendal, and never have I performed for a more educated, critical, and enthusiastic audience.
These senior culture vultures are largely responsible for filling up the two large theaters for the opera in the nearby multiplex on the other side of a four-lane highway. These folks also like to get there early. On the rare occasions when I can extricate myself from the above-mentioned familial duties or plan things so as to bring my own kids to a Saturday matinee on the same day as an opera simulcast and sneak over for highlights, the sea of gray heads visible in the darkness make it easier to pick out the few remaining seats available. For me this is the definitive image of the demographics of classical music patronage.
My uncle agreed that I could swing by his place on my bicycle about 12:20, giving us forty minutes to use his car to drive the two miles (a couple hundred yards as the crow flies) to the cinema. When I arrived, he was putting his gear in a black canvas bag: a cushion to alleviate the back pain of four hours of opera; two almond butter sandwiches on dense whole wheat bread; and a copy of The Monthly Review for the intermission. His short grey hair was topped with a flimsy rainbow-colored visor. He was wearing a black “End the Blockade: US-Cuba Friends Shipment” t-shirt and a “US Out of North America” button. On a string around his neck was his Kendal nametag: “John Kennedy.”
I asked him if he was going to need that at the opera. “If I forget who I am I can just look down.” He had got on Bermuda shorts, brown socks, and rather than his usual footwear — ratty old running shoes with the toes cut-out for comfort — he had on newish and, for him quite white, shoes with brown socks. These “fancy” shoes are for him the equivalent of a tuxedo. The entire sartorial ensemble is pretty much what he would have worn in the old days when he’d now-and-again go to the Met itself.
We made our way to his red Subaru Forrester and headed towards the mall. My uncle was a great marathon runner in middle-age and even into his seventies, breaking three hours at the age of 62. Just as he ran the tangents in the Boston and New York marathons to shave precious yards off of the distance, he steers his station wagon in the most direct route through turns, paying what can seem to his passengers to be minimal attention to the oncoming traffic. At the main entrance to the mall we cut across the two opposite lanes and in front of fast-approaching cars — at which point he threw the car into neutral and took his pedal off the gas, just avoiding a collision. My uncle is one of the world’s leading car coasters, and has a life-long obsession with maximizing gas mileage. For decades he piloted his 1965 Volkswagen Squareback through Rockland County in his own inimitable style. He’d nip over the state-line to fill up with the world’s cheapest gasoline in New Jersey, and proceed to squeeze every inch out of it. Killing the engine at the crest of hills, he’d time things so that the Squareback would barely make it over the top — never mind who might be behind him — and then wait as the car would gather momentum. He could coast for miles up and down the Ramapo Hills, so well did he know the geography and infrastructure of Rockland County, for generations the homeland of my Kennedy clan. He is his own hybrid. His kids — my cousins — made him buy a four-wheel drive, automatic transmission, when he moved to Ithaca. This has only partially dampened his coasting.
At the mall, the parking lot was quite full but somehow my uncle managed to coast into a spot just ahead of a giant black SUV coming in the other direction.
We trundled towards the crass neon entrance to the multiplex. We arrived about twenty-five minutes before curtain and the theater is pretty well full up. The steeply raked section in back with the prime seats seemed full up; my uncle can’t sit too far forward because he can’t look up because of his bad back. Things looked bleak, but than a friend beckoned us from the top tiers and signaled that two seats were available. We climbed slowly up the stairs and then hunkered down for the afternoon.
The Met’s production of Rossini’s Armida, premiered in Naples in 1817, is billed as a vehicle for the versatile and always compelling American soprano Renée Fleming, a commanding singer with a commanding stage presence. She has the aura of the diva, but exudes generosity and warmth, rather than distancing ego. The title role in this opera is said to be Rossini’s most demanding, and it is Fleming’s impetus that has led to the Met undertaking the production. The simulcast’s inter-act commentary provided by another Met soprano, Debora Voigt, and echoed by stage director, Mary Zimmerman, has made much of the apparent fact that the piece has rarely been presented since its premiere in the early 19th century. I think these claims are somewhat exaggerated, given the 20th-century performances by Callas in Florence in 1952, June Anderson in Aix-en-Provence in 1988, and Fleming herself at the Rossini festival in Pesaro, Italy in 1993. Still, this production with Fleming leading the way, hopes it will lead to the reintegration of Armida into the repertoire.
Fleming sings her way through this epic extending over three acts and four hours with assured virtuosity and palpable enthusiasm. Even as crux after crux of coloratura pinnacles are ascended and conquered, the listener does not drift off into complacency but anticipates and revels in the hazards and elations of Rossini’s highly repetitive but always entertaining music. Fleming is gifted with that that most difficult and appealing of musical values: naturalness. She came to singing while in college through jazz; her “indy rock” album is due out on Decca next month. The kind of ease and apparent informality, even in the face of incredible technical demands of this arduous and bel canto decathlon, makes watching and listening to her a rare kind of pleasure. She enjoys the difficulty and drama of it all, and the audience does too.
A favorite story of opera composers, Armida, in its various guises from Handel through Gluck and Haydn to Rossini, is pure orientalist fantasy: the Crusaders and their hero Rinaldo, sung by the excellent Lawrence Brownlee, come to vanquish the Saracens, but encounter the sexy sorcerer Armida who’s got lots of tricks, musical and magical, up her luscious sleeves. After getting some time with Rinaldo, Armida either gets dumped, as in Rossini’s version, or, as in Handel’s, converts to Christianity, which anyway ends her career in witchcraft and man-eating.
Rather than deal with the crusading Western intervention in the Middle East with even the smallest doses of irony, not to mention political comment, the Met production embraces the exotic: sword fights and seduction against a backdrop of Arabic architectural touches and gaudy palm trees.
“Very conventional and disappointing,” said my uncle as the curtain came down on the first act.
The second act redeemed all. The Met production presents the opera without any cuts, which is quite a courageous move, not because four hours is particularly long by operatic standards, but because the second act is made up largely of a divertissement — a ballet watched by Armida and Rinaldo, who has been whisked away to her pleasure island far from the crusading Franks. Once such a crucial part of opera, dance seems to be making a resurgence at many places including the Met, as in Mark Morris’s Orfeo ed Euridice of last year. At the opening of the second act of Armida furies and demons dashed madly about the stage, grabbed their own tails and waved them phallicly at all who would pay attention on-stage and off. The bass-baritone Keith Miller, with his rich voice and more-than-capable dancing, even sang from the backs of some of these silver sparkling transvestite creatures. Rossini can crank out the ballet music as well as the arias, and Graciela Daniele’s choreography took full advantage of it, alternating the conventional with the unexpected — coyly sentimental one minute and overtly erotic the next. Men in tutus and maidens offering apples to the sexually frustrated lead dancer, the capable if oddly-shaped Alan Loux, were thrown in to juice things up. This second act two was full of things to look at and listen to, not least the ravishing duet of Armida and Rinaldo “D’amore al dolce impero.” All these ingredients make a recipe for the most decadent and irresistible eye and ear candy.
“Worth the price of admission,” said my uncle after this spectacle had concluded and before he settled into his almost butter sandwich and a Monthly Review article entitled “Why Are Things the Way They Are Instead of Very Different?”
The Third Act finds Rinaldo’s comrades in arms pull him back to their ranks and leave the scorned Armida in full vengeance mode. I saw Brownlee in Bellini’s I Puritani a couple of years ago in Seattle with another Kennedy — my mother. He has dropped more than a few pounds from his diminutive frame, and his naturally flexible and fleet voice seems even more assured and sumptuous in a role nearly as demanding as that of Armida, He was triumphant in the final act’s tenor trio and the crushing aria that has Rinaldo leave Armida for the call of arms. So radiant is Fleming as a stage presence that it is hard to believe that her character would opt for revenge; but her Armida does indeed become yet another operatic woman hurled by a man over the precipice to insanity. We don’t see the results of that revenge — presumably a tidal wave or oil slick, meant to swamp the three Franks heading back to the mainland in their bark. Instead the ballerina who’d personified “Love” throughout appears and flips over a sign “Il Fine” — the End.
“So we don’t get to find out what happens?’ my uncle complained. “But that’s life.”
(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)