Teele Ude, Lawrence Brownlee, and Renée Fleming
in Armida
(© Ken Howard)
Teele Ude, Lawrence Brownlee, and Renée Fleming
in Armida
(© Ken Howard)
Throughout Armida, the 1817 Gioachino Rossini-Giovanni Schmidt work being presented at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time, there's no end of coloratura singing for star Renee Fleming. But director Mary Zimmerman -- who was roundly booed after last year's production of La Sonnambula -- hasn't met with complete success in bringing this work to the stage.

This silly tale of a temptress who is trying to thwart an 11th-century Crusade is definitely a showcase for Fleming. To audience members hearing her for the first time in the role, she probably sounds mighty impressive. She has the multitudinous glides and slides down masterfully -- and handily fulfills the acting requirements for a protagonist who knows how to wind men around her finger whenever the urge strikes. But the Fleming who recorded the role so memorably in the early 1990s isn't on display here; her voice has clearly lost some of its earlier power.

Under conductor Riccardo Frizza, the orchestra comes up aces in playing Rossini's consistently alluring and unusually demanding music, with especially fine violin work by David Chan and cello work by Rafael Figueroa. Meanwhile, all six of the production's tenors acquit themselves well, including John Osborn and Jose Manuel Zapata. But the production's true highlight is the third-act trio, which features Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo and Kobie van Rensburg as Ubaldo and Barry Banks as Carlo, two colleagues who have been dispatched to rescue him from Armida's witchy clutches.

In the first of the opera's three acts, Zimmerman seems to be playing it safer than usual. On a set where Richard Hudson places a high curved wall with several gated entrances and into which he pushed stylized sand dunes and onto which he drops stylized palm trees meant to say Jerusalem, Zimmerman positions the singers front and more-or-less center to do their arduous crooning.

It's in the second and third acts where her director's compass goes haywire. Although Fleming and Brownlee deliver their "Dove son io!" duet with alluring passion and Fleming rises to a commendable level with the convoluted "D'Amore al dolce impero," most of the action is initially given over to a ludicrous introductory sequence involving Armida's netherworld henchmen (whom Hudson has outfitted with shiny body suits that have long tails). Later, Graciele Daniele -- making her Met debut -- is handed the opportunity to choreograph a ballet intended to entertain Rinaldo by showing him a danced version of his experiences. What Daniele makes of it while filling the lengthy interlude is simply ludicrous.

And then there's the third act, where Zimmerman chooses to have the crucial scene depicting Rinaldo's being pulled from the scheming Armida unfold before the show-scrim, a view of a thrashing sea during a storm. Are Armida, Rinaldo, Ubaldo, amd Carlo on the sea, in it, alongside it, under it? It may be oddly fitting for an opera where the queston "Dove son io?"-- "Where am I?"-- is asked, but one would prefer much more satisfying answers than what's been put on the stage.