The two faces of ‘Armida’

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Article by Alex Jatosti – Student, School of Performing Arts

With its long tradition of heroines and divas, opera has an ambivalent attitude towards its female figures, oscillating between idolatry and erasure. Throughout the genre’s history, (predominantly male) composers and librettists have consistently confined operatic women either to the role of the innocent, self-sacrificing maiden or the evil temptress. Either way, the heroine often meets a fatal end in the final act, the curtain falling like a merciless guillotine: Dido, Juliet, Lucia, and Norma die for love at the end of sublime farewell arias.[1] Worldlier, more unconventional operatic women of the second half of the nineteenth century, who have finally lost the ethereal veil of the early romantic heroine, still must pay for their freedom with their lives: Violetta, Mimì, Tosca, and Carmen all meet the same destiny.[2] Even strikingly modern, twentieth-century characters such as Salome and Lulu must eventually be punished for their transgressions so that moral order can safely be restored.[3]

In Armida, Rossini and his librettist Giovanni Schmidt gave life to a remarkably nuanced female character that subtly eludes operatic archetypes and conventions. The role – tailored for Rossini’s muse and lover, the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran – is one of the most challenging in the composer’s vast production, due not only to the technical difficulties of the bel canto style, requiring exceptional vocal dexterity, but to the character’s inner complexity. Armida the sorceress, the enchantress, the femme fatale demands a lush, seductive timbre and a mastery of chromatic passages; Armida the tragic lover, the woman scorned and abandoned needs all the vocal purity and lyricism of a romantic heroine. Her dramatic and vocal doubleness, her apparent contradictions, the unresolved tension between her impulses, make Armida, despite her enchantments, sympathetic and deeply human.

From her very first appearance on stage, in a seductive recitativo obbligato, Armida bewitches the rest of the (all-male) cast as well as the audience. Through her charms and sheer flattery, she persuades king Goffredo and his Paladins to help her reclaim the throne of Damascus which, she falsely claims, has been usurped by her evil uncle Idraote. She then turns to her attendant – Idraote himself, secretly in league with her – to gloat: ‘They all sigh for me, already in love!’ The part of the damsel in distress, which Armida plays masterfully, and her staged vulnerability are but a manipulation.

However, when Rinaldo makes his entrance, another facet of Armida’s character is revealed. We learn that the two have met before; she generously rescued the knight and fell in love with him, only to be abandoned for him to return to war. The devious, haughty Armida, in a moment of authentic vulnerability, puts her wounded pride and schemings aside to confess her devotion to Rinaldo in their most famous love duet.

The lovers run away together, but their romance, like the enchanted palace that serves as its backdrop, is a sweet illusion destined to end. Both characters struggle with their own contradictions: Rinaldo is torn between his feelings and his allegiance, Armida between the world of darkness to which she belongs and the light of a noble, redemptive love. In an attempt to keep Rinaldo at her side, away from battle, the sorceress holds him willingly captive in a life of hedonism, and much like Odysseus on Calypso’s island, Rinaldo indulges in the sweet imprisonment until he is bound to turn his back on love and return to duty.

A final redemption or a sentencing for Armida would have been the conventional dramatic choice. The abandoned heroine could die of heartbreak, like Dido, honouring a long operatic tradition, or be punished for her enchantments. Yet, Schmidt and Rossini manage to escape the misogyny of operatic clichés, and choose a different, less well-trodden path for their protagonist. In her final scene, the elusive sorceress chooses not love but vengeance, storming off into her world of shadows.

Armida’s enigmas remain unsolved to the end: does she embody or defy the archetype of the femme fatale? Is she a subversive figure in the world of opera, that so often condemns its women to a tragic end? Does her survival signify an overthrowing of operatic conventions? Or is she yet another scorned heroine, punished for her treachery with her lover’s abandonment? As Rossini leaves all tension unresolved, the question remains yours to answer.[4]



Clément, Catherine. 1988. Opera, or the Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

Osborne, Richard. 2007. Rossini (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

[1] Dido, queen of Carthage in Purcell’s 1689 Dido and Aeneas. Juliet, protagonist of Bellini’s Montecchi e Capuleti, an 1830 operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Lucia, the crazed heroine of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). Norma, titular character of Bellini’s 1831 opera.

[2] Violetta, the courtesan who falls ill with tuberculosis in Verdi’s La Traviata (1853). Mimì, a Parisian bohemienne who dies of the same disease in Puccini’s La Bohème (1895). Tosca, a Roman opera singer who jumps off Castel Sant’angelo in another of Puccini’s veristi works (1899). Carmen, the rebellious Romani woman of Bizet’s 1875 opéra comique, who is stabbed by her former lover.

[3] Salome, the biblical anti-heroine of Strauss’s 1905 opera, adapted from a play by Oscar Wilde. Lulu, murderous femme fatale in Berg’s 1937 modernist opera.

[4] Richard Osborne, Rossini (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 257

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