Dvořák’s last opera has been neglected for reasons that are at once hard to fathom and easily understandable. An ideal ‘Wexford work’, then, it ties together many strands from across operatic history.
Opera in four acts
Libretto by Jaroslav Vrchlický
(after Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata)
Sung in Czech with English surtitles
First performance: National Theatre, Prague, 1904
Armida is based, unusually for a 20th-century opera, on a source that was especially popular in 17th- and 18th-century operas. Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, a largely mythified account of the Crusades, tells the story of the love of the Saracen sorceress Armida for the Christian warrior Rinaldo. It inspired around 100 operas and ballets — most famously operas by Handel, Gluck, Haydn. There was a late flowering of interest in the story in Rossini’s Armida in 1817, and then almost a century later Dvořák turned his attention to it.
His Armida was premiered four years after the much more famous Rusalka, with the same soprano creating both title roles. The difficult-to-understand aspect of the opera’s neglect has to do with Dvořák’s music, some of it very characteristic of the composer’s finest work — especially the music of his American period. It also represents the peak of his admiration for Wagner and to be fair, with its cast of Christian knights pitted against a pagan magician and female sorceress, to say nothing of an enchanted garden, Parsifal is not the most improbable model.
So it is fair to conclude that its neglect has more to do with the old-fashioned nature of the libretto — a throwback to Quinault’s text for Lully’s Armide — and it is hardly surprising that the story found little favour in fin de siècle Prague, where the opera was premiered in 1904. Although the librettist Vrchlický — a poet nominated for the Nobel Prize eight times — had already translated the whole of Gerusalemme liberata into Czech, it’s fair to say that he was better at oratorio texts than opera librettos. Not since his first opera, Alfred, had Dvořák set a non-Slavonic subject, making this perhaps something of a surprise turning in his last opera, but a fascinating one nonetheless.
In Damascus, news of an approaching Frankish army puts the royal court on alert, but the prince Ismen tries to dissuade the King Hydraot from dispatching an attacking force. Instead, he suggests sending the king’s daughter Armida (with whom Ismen is in love) to sow dissent. Armida initially refuses, but changes her mind when Ismen uses his magical powers to conjure up an image of the camp, where she recognises Rinald as the knight of whom she has just dreamt. In the crusaders’ camp, Armida and Rinald become lovers before escaping back to her garden. Though it appears that Armida’s powers of sorcery are stronger than Ismen’s magic, with the help of Rinald’s fellow knights they lure him out of the palace, which collapses amid Armida’s grief. Rejoining the crusaders, Rinald advances on Damascus, where he kills Ismen and — unwittingly — Armida. She dies in his arms.
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by Antonín Dvořák