The Sorceress Armida!

Of Diabolic Forests, Orgiastic Palaces, Ecstatic Gardens, Transformations & Bewilderments

Ah! To be seduced by Armida, to be transported to her magical, fantastic realms, to her diabolic forests, orgiastic palaces, ecstatic gardens!

May the sorceress be forever vengeful! May she forever blot out mortal lovers who dare betray her! May she forever conjure fearful storms and rip tsunami from the sea! Long live Armida!

I met her, this Armida, just the other night, as summoned by Rossini and channeled unfiltered through Renee Fleming. I inhaled her, the powerful, seductive sorceress. She is—fantastic. She is—fantasy.

More, she feeds the fires of fantasy—she keeps fantasy alive!

Yes, I’m in love.

But you may wondering, Who is this Armida?

Strike Dead Sour Critics!

Fantasy lovers, I know opera’s not to everyone’s liking, but you need not be an opera lover to enjoy The Met’s production of Armida. Sadly, its run has ended and the last HD Broadcast has aired. But if The Met issues a performance DVD or re-broadcasts? Let go your reservations about opera and see it!

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

And those snooty we-were-less-than-thrilled reviews, of which the most pathetic whined about the length of the awesome ballet in Act II? The spiteful work of sour, left-brained trolls unable to let go and fly into realms fantastic. Ignore them. Epsilon minus semi-moron troglodytes!

Ignore them and treat yourself to the too short trailer at The Met’s site. Then imagine those demons and devils delighting you for hours! They were—fantastic!

Check out the stage set too! Talk about imaginative, creative, the stuff of dream and nightmare! And—many thanks to The Met for granting permission—enjoy the wonderful photographs by Ken Howard included here.

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

(And fantasy lovers? Next season The Met will produce and HD broadcast two operas in The Ring Cycle, high-tech marvels. Be thrilled by the trailer! Don’t miss them! Mark your calendars now!)

So Who is this Witch Armida?

Armida is old—but immortal! Forever gorgeous and alluring too!

Armida leaps onto the world stage in Jerusalem Delivered, a 16th century epic poem about the First Crusade, a poem in which facts take back seat to fiction—and fantasy.

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

The Italian poet Tasso relishes the emotional turmoil of heart vs. duty—or love versus military valor and honor. No gold stars for guessing which side of the conflict Armida takes!

In Jerusalem Divided, Armida steals into the Crusaders’ camp, begs for aid—and delights the knights. She leads a group of seduced knights away—and wand-zaps them into animals.

Armida longs to take out the mighty knight Rinaldo, only to fall in love with him. Off they go to an island of magic and enchantment; there Rinaldo enjoys her caresses, an AWOL Crusader embracing the forbidden.

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

All good things must end, and along comes Rinaldo’s Crusader conscience in the shape of two comrades bent on delivering him from evil. They fight their way onto the island and thrust a diamond mirror to Rinaldo’s face. (The mirror is a shiny shield in the opera.) Rinaldo wakes up, leaves Armida, and returns to the manly glories of war.

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

Armida is heartbroken. She longs to die—but cannot, for she is immortal.

In Rossini’s opera Armida is torn between love—letting Rinaldo go—and vengeance—wiping Rinaldo and the two valor-obsessed goons from the face of the earth. Delightfully, vengeance wins! Bye bye Rinaldo & Co.!

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

As Homer and Virgil inspired the Jerusalem Divided, Armida’s parentage is honorable and ancient.

The Circe Connection: Transformations & Islands

Jerusalem Divided‘s entranced Crusaders being turned into animals echoes Odysseus’ men being transformed into swine by the magic potion queen Circe.

Circe has an island too. And wouldn’t you know it? Wily Odysseus finds a way to bed Circe without her depriving him of his manhood. Then, after a year of enjoying Circe and her provisions, Odysseus takes off. (Think he ever told Penelope about Circe?)

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

If Circe was Armida’s great grandmother, then Armida’s grandmother may have been…

Morgue Le Faye & Avalon: Mystical Islands & Devilry

In some tellings of Scandinavian lore Ogier, a warrior, is taken by Morgue Le Faye to Avalon where he stays for 200 years—after which he returns to France to fight.

In the Legends of Charlemagne, Morgue Le Faye takes Ogier the Dane to her mystical island where they become lovers. For many years villainy has had no better poster child than Morgue Le Faye the seductive megalomaniac out to do in Arthur. (However, after The Mists of Avalon—but more about that later.)

And Armida’s mother?

The Sorceress Alcina: More Knights, Islands & Magic

A generation or so before Jerusalem Divided, Ludovico Ariosto penned the romantic epic Orlando FuriosoThe Frenzy (or Madness) of Orlando.

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

In Frenzy Ruggiero (Rinaldo) loves the good Bradamante, but finds himself snared on Alcina’s magic island. This tale sports a spell-breaking magic ring Ruggiero receives from Melissa, a good sorceress.

Predictably, our hero returns to Bradamante and marries her.

And so we have it, a possible, fun and fantastic family tree: Circe > Morgue Le Faye > Alicina > Armida > Rossini’s Armida.

Armida Assaults and Heals Duty/Love, Honor/Passion, Good/Bad Splits

Another answer to “Who is this Witch Armida?” crystalizes when we ask, “What might Armida represent?”

A quick, down and dirty response to this question is that Armida represents one end of a pair of opposites. The human tendency to split reality into polar opposites, to side with one end proclaiming it “good” and demonize the other end and attack it is—problematic. Armida addresses this split.

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

Christianity emerged in Europe, faced deep-rooted pagan beliefs, co-existed happily for a time, but later transformed pagans into enemies—demons, devils, witches too—and went to war. Duty and honor shone as “good.” Love, the body, passion, emotions—all that “feminine” and “effeminate” stuff—got carelessly thrown in with the “bad.” Fantasy got thrown out too.

Rinaldo the Crusader is “good.” Armida the pagan sorceress is “bad.” Nay—she and her kind are “evil.”

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

Thank goodness the likes of Marion Zimmer Bradley came along—with sumptuous tales like The Mists of Avalon—to remind us polarization is a dangerous undertaking. “Splitting,” as a psychological defense mechanism, is a “primitive” defense found in the worst examples of psychopathology. (I just love the fact that Mists is a fantasy restoring split-off fantasy to an arid, Apollo-drenched world.)

And a nod to Rossini too. So many ancient stories tell of women—mortal and sorceress alike—who fall in love with some guy who, in time, decides he’d rather be with his good men friends doing honorable manly things and leaves her. And so often these women crumple and cry. But not Armida! Oh no! Vengeance is hers!

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

Rossini also wonderfully muddies the traditional polarization:

  • Is Rinaldo magically enchanted by Armida—or deeply in love with her?
  • Is Rinaldo a simple boy toy—or is Armida genuinely in love with him?
  • Is Rinaldo right to place duty over love—or in refusing Armida’s offer to give up her powers and go with him is his error in keeping to the polarization?
  • And is Armida wrong in waving her wand and raising high the seas to crush Rinaldo and Co.—or might “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” point a finger at the “scorner?

I’m all for an end to polarization!

In the meantime, long live the powerful women of fantasy!

Long live Armida!

[ Photo Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera—used with permission ]

Dr. Kirtland C. Peterson—”Cat” to his friends and colleagues—loves opera and isn’t afraid to say so in public!


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