Torquato Tasso’s epic poem in verse Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), with a plot set at the time of the First Crusade (1099), was popular among the composers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It provided ample opportunities for powerful characterizations of love and jealousy, conflicts between inclination and duty, as well as spectacular scene changes. The various aspects of the story — strong attraction between the oriental princess-enchantress Armida and the Christian knight Rinaldo, their brief romantic involvement, Rinaldo’s repentance and subsequent abandonment of Armida, the enchantress’s pleas, fury and cries of revenge were all considered fascinating subjects for musical settings. No less than forty works were based on Tasso’s poem. Among the composers inspired by the story, we find Claudio Monteverdi, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Georg Friedrich Händel, Niccolò Jommelli, Antonio Salieri, Domenico Cimarosa, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Franz Joseph Haydn, Antonin Dvorak... and Gioachino Rossini, the most famous opera composer of his time.

     Rossini was born in Pesaro on February 29, 1792. Devoted to music since early childhood (receiving lessons in singing, cembalo and horn), the young Rossini developed a strong affinity for classical Viennese composers such as Mozart and Haydn; this earned him the nickname “Il tedeschino” (Little German). As early as 1806, he was commissioned to write his first opera, Demetrio e Polibio — which, nevertheless, did not have its premiere before 1812. Rossini’s fame came with Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri, both performed in Venice in 1813. In May of 1815, Rossini left for Naples on an invitation by the impresario Domenico Barbaja. His first Neapolitan opera, Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, scored a huge success at the Teatro San Carlo. The celebrated Spanish singer Isabella Colbran, who would later become the composer’s wife, created the title role. Armida, an opera in three acts on the libretto by Giovanni Schmidt, was third in the distinguished series of Rossini’s nine (or ten, if La gazzetta is to be included) operas composed for the Neapolitan public. The world premiere was held at the Teatro San Carlo on November 11, 1817, with Colbran in the title role.

     Armida is the twenty-second of the nearly forty operas Rossini composed between 1806 and 1829, and thus occupies a central position in his operatic opus. It is also one in which his full maturity as a composer of opere serie is evident. In Armida, Rossini also maintains the same level of melodic invention and artistic individuality as in the three preceding works: Otello (Naples, December 4, 1816), La Cenerentola (Rome, January 25, 1817) and La gazza ladra (Milan, May 31, 1817). In comparison to these operas, Armida, composed in the Summer and Fall of 1817, presented new and significant challenges. Among them was the task of writing an opera seria on a subject that included the bizarre, sorcery and supernatural. These elements that did not appeal to Rossini’s artistic taste at all; by nature, he was inclined to naturalism and spontaneity rather than the diabolic or calculated. As it seems, the choice of the subject was made by the impresario Barbaja himself. Not only was he eager to exploit the spectacular and grandiose sides of the plot and setting, but he also wished to present the choreographic potential and the extraordinary artistry of Teatro San Carlo’s ballet in the best possible light. Therefore, one of Rossini’s task was to compose music to accompany several transformations that were intended to take place on the stage, as well as a substantial amount of ballet music (equaled in length only by the ballets he would late write for some of his Paris operas, e.g. Le siège de Corinthe, Moïse et Pharaon, Guillaume Tell). In fact, Armida is the only of his nine Neapolitan operas that includes a ballet. The subject of Armida as dramma per musica had another problematic aspect: that of an essentially Baroque aesthetics exemplified by Lully or Händel operas facing a budding Romantic era that was soon to produce masterpieces such as Der Freichütz.

     There were other artistic challenges as well. Not only was it decided that Armida would be the only female character in the opera, but she was also purposefully placed at the center of both the drama and the music, possibly on Barbaja’s suggestion (Isabella Cobran was his mistress). Rossini thus wrote the fiendishly difficult and unusually demanding role of Armida specifically for Colbran. Curiously enough, no fewer than seven supporting roles were originally assigned to tenors; the bass role of Idraote was the only lower soloist voice in the entire score. More economically, the seven tenor roles were actually sung by four singers at the premiere, three of them doubling one-act roles which appear in different acts, e.g. those of Gernando and Ubaldo. Finally, the librettist Giovanni Schmidt showed reticence in adapting his usual writing style (in which recitatives were predominant over fully sung numbers) to the artistic sensitivity of the young maestro from Pesaro.

     Armida was not a success at the premiere; the music was deemed too heavily influenced by Germanic aesthetics, which had rather negative connotation in the early 19th-century Italy. One critic accused Rossini of “repressing the impulses of his native temperament” and adopting “barbarous mannerisms,” seduced as he was “by the giddiness of fashion” and persuaded that it was “the only way to win applause.” Not so surprisingly, Armida was received more favorably in Austria and Germany, where the audiences were more open and sensitive to its artistic subtleties. Rossini’s old nickname “Il tedeschino” thus became more actual than ever. However, despite the initial reserve, the opera began to gain recognition with each subsequent rehearsal and performance — first in Naples, then in Italy as well. In Armida, Rossini adopted an original and innovative style appropriate to the fantastic and imaginary nature of the subject. It was quite different from the conventionally beautiful, traditional style of Cimarosa’s or Paisiello’s opere serie, to which the audiences of the time were accustomed; their rather reserved initial reaction was understandable. However, the value and originality of the new work was impossible to miss. Even after the premiere, the same critic mentioned above showed considerable appreciation of the libretto’s musical and dramatic potential: “The poem of Signor Schmidt presented the favorable opportunity of being able to vary the character of the music; and the composer knew how to draw profit from it happily, adapting to it measures now warlike, now voluptuous, now tender and passionate, and always beautiful and original.”

     With Armida, Rossini also reaches new depths of maturity as a composer, obviously inspired by the new experiment rather than feeling hindered by it. The prominently hedonistic and erotic world of Armida’s enchanted palace, her magic garden, her personal charm and seductiveness, are depicted in remarkably sensual and delicate tonal colors (e.g. the orchestral and vocal writing in all duets for Armida and Rinaldo). Then, by purely musical terms, Rossini masterfully portrays the gulf of contrast between the predominantly bright, chivalrous, heroic and energetic world of Crusaders and a noticeably darker, mysterious, slightly muted and markedly erotic realm of the pagan princess and her suite. The two worlds are at first portrayed in clearly defined and separated musical blocks; by the last Act, they become intermingled by a subtle play of light and dark harmonic colorations. While the Crusaders appear rather one-dimensional, drawn in single brush strokes, Armida’s kingdom is much more complex. It is subdivided into the gloomy, ghastly and diabolical underworld of demons and furies, the sorceress’s intoxicating sensuality, and a deceivingly sweet mirage-like atmosphere created by infernal apparitions disguised as nymphs. Moreover, in Rossini’s vocal writing for major female parts, the usage of coloratura as a means of dramatic expression (and not mere vocal ornament) is given a higher degree of complexity; Armida’s “Se al mio crudel tormento” is a prime example. Due to the contribution of all abovementioned factors, Armida certainly deserves a unique position in Rossini’s operatic oeuvre. It did, nevertheless, disappear from the repertory some twenty years after the world premiere; the last traced performance in the 19th century was in Budapest (1838). This could be explained in part by the unusually high demands put not only on the female protagonist, who has to be an exceptional dramatic coloratura singer with a great stamina, but also on most of the supporting cast (at least three tenors need to be Rossini specialists). After more than 110 years of absence from world’s stages, Armida was finally revived together with Il Conte Ory, Tancredi, La pietra del paragone, La scala di seta and Guglielmo Tell at the 15th Florence May Festival, on the occasion of the 160th anniversary of Rossini’s birth. Three performances of Armida (April 26 and 29, as well as May 4, 1952) were given in a performing edition prepared by Vito Frazzi. Maria Meneghini Callas sang the title role. Tullio Serafin was the conductor, and the supporting cast included Francesco Albanese as Rinaldo, the more famous Mario Filippeschi as Gernando, and the young and promising Gianni Raimondi in two small tenor roles. The sets were designed by the director Alberto Savinio; Léonide Massine was the choreographer. The premiere was broadcast and recorded. The performances were successful, but the opera was not produced again until eighteen years later (Venice, April 1970). Unlike Tancredi, for example, Armida has not yet established a firm position in the Rossini repertory. In more recent times, occasional revivals do occur, the notable examples being the performances in 1988 (Amsterdam and Aix-en-Province) and 1993 (Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro). Between these two revivals, there was also a world premiere studio recording of the opera. When heard in an excellent professionally recorded sound, the score’s originality and its many beauties can finally be appreciated for their full worth. Still, recordings of Armida are in short supply. To this day, only three complete live versions have been commercially released, in addition to the already mentioned studio recording. For these reasons, the present performance is rightly considered a milestone in Armida’s performance history. The Divina Records edition is the first complete CD version of the famous 1952 Florence premiere of Armida.

     The overture begins, quite unusually, with a march-like maestoso theme in D-minor lead by a bassoon and a horn which, when played at a slower pace as in this performance, may bear resemblance to a funeral march. By this enigmatic section, Rossini might have symbolized Armida’s victory over the Christian knights whom she enchanted and enslaved in her magic garden. This rather gloomy opening is sharply contrasted with the section in major that follows; this is the vigorous and virtuous world of the Crusaders led by Goffredo. The wistful opening section returns, but is quickly subjugated by the knights’ energy and determination; daylight has conquered darkness, and the overture ends in an animated, triumphant mood. The same energetic atmosphere full of warlike élan pervades the opening chorus and the second half of Goffredo’s cavatina (despite the predominance of tenor voices in the cast, it is one of the only two tenor arias in the entire opera). After such a promising start, Rossini’s melodic invention gives no sign of waning. Another melodious marziale section for orchestra, joined by the voices of Eustazio, Goffredo and chorus, accompanies Armida’s entrance (it will be used again for the opening scene in Moïse et Pharaon and Moisè). From the very beginning of Armida’s opening recitative, Maria Callas’ voice exudes royal authority; yet we can clearly hear the character’s false humility and manipulative suavity as well. This is unmistakably a commanding sovereign who can successfully feign being in danger, and thus wheedle her way into the sympathies of unsuspecting males. It is interesting to note that, at the dress rehearsal done shortly before the performance, Callas had a complete memory lapse at this point. She was obliged to ask for a cue and make her entrance again (this would be hardly surprising as, according to Callas’ memoirs dictated in 1956 and published in the Oggi magazine, she had to learn the role in only five days). The night of the premiere, however, Callas was in superb control over every aspect of the role. The recitative leads to one of the most inspired numbers in the score, a quartet for soprano, two tenors, a bass and chorus. Richard Osborne, a distinguished Rossini scholar, writes in his book on Rossini: “On the page ... the music looks merely florid. But as Maria Callas memorably demonstrated in performances in Florence in 1952, and as Colbran must have done in Naples in 1817, this is music in which the bel canto style is precisely and powerfully used to convey the impression of Armida — part woman, part sorceress — caught in the toils of her own fantasy.” The breathtaking agility, fiery intensity and dazzling brilliance of Callas’ vocal execution are phenomenal. Taken from a purely vocal standpoint, this is one of the most impressive examples of Rossini singing ever captured in sound. But Callas goes much further; the intensity of the opening phrases conveys sheer despair of the character (genuine or feigned, it is equally convincing), and her second delivery of the line “Sventurata! or che mi resta? Della morte più funesta...” is heartrendingly suppliant in tone. The calculative pretense is at its most eloquent and persuasive here — what warrior would remain insensitive to a beautiful woman’s tears? As if all this is not enough, Callas interpolates a D of superhuman power and precision at the end of the cadenza. The glimpse of Armida’s eventual victory over Goffredo’s resistance can be caught in Callas’ quiet but confident, almost gloating aside “Per me ognuno sospira e geme.” She returns to the imploring mode in the following andante, in which her voice acquires a wonderfully soft and tender quality while remaining perfectly supple and nimble. (Incidentally, the melodic material of this section was “borrowed” from Giuseppe Giordani’s “Caro mio ben,” one of the most popular Arie Antiche.) Finally, Callas’ Armida finds it hard to believe that her pleas have, after all, been granted (the magically incredulous “E sarà ver? Cor mio, alfin potrai sperar!”). She openly expresses an overwhelming joy in the concluding virtuoso passage, in which brilliance and technical mastery match those of the opening section, and crowns the quartet with a ringing (if somewhat abruptly abandoned) high E.

     The next recitative section is extensively cut, as is most of Gernando’s scene. This is a great pity, for both the central slow section and the cabaletta contain beautiful and expressive music. Only the relatively less interesting parts are retained (the aria’s opening, “Non soffrirò l’offesa,” and the concluding coda), with the short chorus section placed before the opening instead of after it. Mario Filippeschi’s tone is ringing and heroic; the voice has an exciting squillo quality, but the singing is rather graceless. The tenor generally lacks an appropriate sense of style and is unable to successfully negotiate florid passages. The same can be said of Francesco Albanese. He is not insensitive to phrasing and can sing adequately, even shape the phrases handsomely, but the ornamented passages requiring mastery of the bel canto style are beyond his competence. (For instance, Albanese completely omits the highly intricate fioriture written for the tenor part in the famous duet “Amor! Possente nome”). This lovely duet, as well as Armida’s second-act aria with variations (“D’Amor al dolce impero”) gained popularity outside of the opera’s context, and were often performed separately. The discreet amorous ardor of the opening section of the duet and the elegance of the musical writing throughout the number are remarkable. These are precisely the qualities felt in Callas’ gracefully sung lines. Her tender tone is that of a woman in love, her creamy sound has a distinct note of reverie. It is clear that this Armida loves her knight deeply, and dreamily yearns to be at his side. Duty, however, commands that Rinaldo flee from Armida’s charms, as he does not fail to communicate to the princess, and Callas’ two cries of “Fuggirmi?” are beautifully contrasted: the first strikingly conveys Armida’s hurt and disbelief, almost defiance at Rinaldo’s words, the second betrays deep emotional pain. Armida’s pliant lines in the beautiful cantabile section of the duet (“Vacilla a quegli accenti”) are full of calm hope that Rinaldo will finally be hers. An air of amorous bliss and soft rapture characterizes the concluding segment, in which the mounting excitement of the rising phrases “Che esprimere, che esprimere, che esprimere non so” is especially worth noting.

     The heavy, inelegant style of the two principal tenors is also evident in their duet, a successful musical portrayal of antagonism, defiance and smoldering fury. However inadequate, Filippeschi at least raises to the occasion with his clarion high Cs, which Albanese omits. An appropriate note of dramatic tension and suspense is present in the orchestral passage that accompanies the duel itself. The Act I finale begins with “Che terribile momento.” This is an excellent example of how a typical cantabile melody can convey feelings of anguish, shock and shuddering terror, when placed in an adequate harmonic context. The middle section of the Finale, “Deh! se cara a te son io,” can be considered a short love duet in itself, and is certainly one of the most beautiful moments in the score. Armida’s hushed, serious tone shows her concern for Rinaldo’s safety. Especially effective in this regard are the sudden harmonic modulations at “Come, oh Dio, mi trema il cor!” — at this moment, concern becomes fear. The stretta brings Act I to a quick end (the short section beginning with “La discordia coll’orrida face” includes a solo line by Callas that was omitted from all previously published CD editions). The chorus’ opening of the stretta sets a dark, foreboding atmosphere. This is soon lightened by the joyous rhythm and jubilant enthusiasm of Rinaldo’s and Armida’s verses — the two lovers have finally seized an opportunity to give full reign to their feelings. The section “Caligini intorno” brings one of those famous Rossini crescendi, and Callas caps the Finale with an added high C, further enhancing Armida’s ecstasy at the prospect of having Rinaldo at her side.

     Act II is the shortest of the three, and contains practically no dramatic action. Essentially, it can be viewed as a long intermezzo — a tribute to love and its pleasures. It opens in a “horrid forest,” announcing the famous Wolf’s Glen scene from Weber’s Der Freischütz. The harmonies and the choice of minor keys are chilling, the world of darkness and hectic activity of Furies aptly depicted. However, the orchestral writing is far more interesting than the melodic invention or the vocal lines. Astarotte’s recitative and the predominantly declamatory character of both choruses may sound disappointingly monotonous; however, the orchestra with its trombones and trumpets (somewhere mid-way between Gluck’s Hades and Weber’s The Wolf’s Glen) has an arresting sound. The duettino for Armida and Rinaldo that follows is from another world: that of languorous eroticism. It is introduced by a rapturous prelude for solo cello, tellingly depicting the vision of a chariot descending from the sky, first enveloped by a cloud, then magically transformed into a bank of flowers by Armida. The duettino offers some highly evocative vocal writing. Initially simple and brief, vocal phrases soon become exquisitely florid, suggesting a picture of rare sensuous beauty. Rather than participating in a typical operatic duet as in Act I, the two voices form an enchanting love dialogue on the delicate background of a solo cello. The tender ardor and ethereal radiance of Callas’ downward glissandi are particularly expressive; Albanese’s responses, on the other hand, remain rather earthbound and clumsy. Situated at the very center of the score, this Mozartean piece is one of its greatest highlights. The brief music of transformation that follows is nothing short of extraordinary. The power of Rossini’s music — his musical equivalent of the “center of pleasure” in Schmidt’s libretto — is such that the splendor of a new (however deceitful) world can be felt with greatest immediacy only by listening to this section. After a graceful chorus of nymphs, we arrive at the most popular number in the opera: Armida’s showpiece “D’Amor al dolce impero.” It is a set of variations on a charming opening theme, written in a most intricate bravura mode. The tempo chosen by Serafin on this occasion is rather slow, which blunts somewhat the impact, and Callas’ interpretation would have greater spirit and spontaneity two years later (the concert performance of December 27, 1954, included on CD 2 as a bonus track). Callas’ first public rendition of “D’Amor al dolce impero” is, however, already quite impressive. As if the downward runs to low G, the firmness and graceful lightness of B-flats, the numerous melismas, the pinpoint preciseness of the staccati and numerous other features were not enough, she further amazes by interpolating high D-flats and three high Ds. The high notes are delivered with magnificent power and security (save for the wavery final D in alt, which is, nevertheless, hit with tremendous force). An unerring sense of style, the expressive use of the ornaments (suggesting amorous lust and excitement rather than a merry song of love), the supple, pliant and fresh beauty of the voice caught at its absolute peak, make this recording one of the most phenomenal recorded examples of bravura Rossini singing. In 1954, Callas’ interpretation would acquire more finish and sense of wholeness (it was her fourth and last public rendition of the aria), her singing would retain the same technical mastery, the gaps between the registers would be more skillfully bridged; however, some of the interpolated ornaments and top notes would be omitted. Her 1952 version of “D’Amor al dolce impero,” while sonically inferior, remains the more decorative of the two. The Act finishes with a full-length ballet scene; its four sections contain some of the most delightful dance numbers composed by Rossini. The brief and lively opening Marziale is introduced by a solo trumpet; in the enchantingly melodious Andante that follows, a solo cello and a solo horn predominate, accompanied by chords of a solo harp (this section would be reused in the ballet music of Moïse et Pharaon and Moisè). Allegro moderato brings several charming jaunty melodies distinctly Rossinian in style, yet anticipating Act I of Adolphe Adam’s Giselle. This time the winds, lead by a clarinet and a piccolo and supported by strings, expose and develop fresh music ideas. The final Vivace is given equally to strings and woodwinds supported by a harp. The bouncy coda includes a short choral conclusion whose vocal lines are omitted here (unlike Acts I and III, Act II suffers only minor excisions in this version, and is presented largely as written).

     In Act III, the contrast between dark and light is given an additional dimension. Here the two worlds intermingle; one is even represented by the means of the other. The first half of the opening number, a beautiful duet for Carlo and Ubaldo, exudes peaceful serenity: the short piccolo interjections suggest birdcalls, the gentle brook murmur is represented by a harp. This wonderful pastoral atmosphere is, however, suddenly and dramatically changed. The two protagonists are well aware of the magic power and deceit at work, and openly denounce it in a chilly concluding passage. A graceful chorus of false nymphs tries to seduce them, but their charm is dispelled. “Qui tutto è calma” is one of Rossini’s loveliest choruses — indeed all “calm, delight and love,” “the blissful abode of Love, the Golden Age come back,” where a heart “finds release from grief,” as the text says. The music will be used again, somewhat modified and in a different context, in Act I of Moisè (chorus “La dolce aurora”). Its second half as well as the next twelve minutes of the performance are, unfortunately, spoiled by a male speaker voice dubbed over the music in low pitch, which no doubt explains why this section was omitted from all previous commercial editions of this recording. The mood of the last in the series of love duets written for Armida and Rinaldo, “Soavi catene,” is similar to the duet from Act II. This time, a solo violin plays in the orchestral introduction and then joins the voices. It is interesting to note Rossini’s musical treatment of the development of Armida’s and Rinaldo’s sentiments in the opera. Their first meeting has the conventional tripartite form of an early 19th-century duet (often used by Rossini in his operas), preceded by an extended recitative. The musical ideas are at first exposed by each voice individually; they join only in the later parts of the second and third sections of the duet. This is certainly the beginning of a romance — but passion has not yet found the way to fulfillment. The same structure characterizes the short duet “Deh! se cara a te son io” in the Act I Finale. Act II, however, brings a change. “Dove son io?...” begins with a short question-and-answer type of love dialogue, where voices complement each other. They are now noticeably more intimate, and are joined in unison in the beautifully decorated second half of the duet. Finally, “Soavi catene” in Act III is disarmingly simple. It describes the lovers’ commitment and devotion purely by terms of vocal writing (it is entirely sung in unison). Calmness and blissfulness reign, and nothing seems to matter except the love of the two protagonists. However, their happiness is short lived; Armida leaves, and Carlo and Ubaldo soon reveal the truth to Rinaldo. The trio “In quale aspetto imbelle” has often been cited; rightfully so, as it is one of the most deeply felt moments in the entire score. It is also one of the finest examples of Rossini’s musical invention and ability to communicate the drama with expressive and original music. Rinaldo, who is denied a solo aria, here finds a way to express complex feelings — shock, shame, remorse, and, in the final part, vigorous resoluteness to return to duty and bring the disgraceful situation to an end. In the first section marked Maestoso, the contrasting emotions of the character are conveyed by a most inventive melodic writing for both the voice and the orchestra, with the two supporting voices imitating Rinaldo’s phrases as an expression of understanding and sympathy. The last section, “Unitevi a gara,” has a splendid Rossinian energy and drive. Regrettably, Armida’s dramatic recitative (which Callas’ genius certainly would have illuminated) is cut; it is replaced by a repetition of the first part of the Overture, probably to allow enough time for a smooth change of scenery. The Finale belongs principally to the opera’s title role. In the recitative, Callas’ voice masterfully expresses a whole gamut of diverse and contrasting emotions: breathless anxiety and despair (“Ed è pur vero?... e abbandonarmi vuoi?”), bitter reproach (“E gloria fia tradir l’amor, la fé?”), painful resignation (“Parti, se vuoi”) and heartrending begging of Rinaldo not to forsake Armida (“Sol chiedo i tuoi passi seguir”). She uses most humble and suppliant tones (“Fanciulla umil”) to implore Rinaldo to accept Armida as a follower-servant. There is also strong determination to follow the hero wherever he goes, come what may. This four-minute recitative, a swiftly moving, miniature drama in itself, is indeed richly shaped by Callas. But all Armida’s pleas are in vain, and the princess’s pain culminates in a self-pitying, bitterly accusing outburst “Se al mio crudel tormento” — an incredibly difficult piece with almost superhuman vocal and dramatic demands put on the voice. In Armida’s soliloquy “Dove son io!...”, Rossini abandons all conventional musical structure to imaginatively portray at first Armida’s torment, disarray, feelings of love mixed with a desire for vengeance, then, ultimately, her resolute cries of revenge and calls for destruction. Callas’ interpretation of the entire scene (capped with a prolonged E-flat) is one of the greatest moments in her entire recorded legacy. It is aptly described by Henry Wisneski in his book on Callas (1975): “During Armida’s twelve-minute final scene, Callas pushed her voice to its limits, spanning almost three octaves. Armida’s revilement of Rinaldo because of his infidelity, ‘E l’alma tua nudrita fu ognor di crudeltà,’ was delivered with torrents of sound, as Callas hurtled through some of the most florid music in operatic literature. Armida’s final promise of vengeance was sung with knife-trust attacks for key words, acidulous high notes and open chest tones.” The famous critic Andrew Porter wrote: “It is possible to feel that the phrases beneath the florid passages are far too much overlaid with ornament; but it was impossible to regret it when Maria Callas was singing them ... Her presence is imperious, her coloratura not piping and pretty, but powerful and dramatic ... Her brilliance continually startled and delighted, throughout the opera” (Opera, 1952).

     Callas never sang the complete role again after the third Florence performance of May 4, 1952 (sandwiched between the second and third Armidas was a performance of Bellini’s I puritani in Rome on May 2 — no small feat!). It is, therefore, a stroke of luck that a complete recording of her Armida exists. However, Callas returned to “D’Amor al dolce impero” twice afterwards. The first occasion was one of the famous Martini e Rossi concerts broadcast by RAI (Sanremo, Teatro dell’Opera, December 27, 1954). It was shared by the celebrated tenor Beniamino Gigli and, fortunately, preserved in good sound. Six years later, Callas planned to include this music in her EMI album of predominantly bel canto arias. The sessions were held in London’s Watford Town Hall, with Antonio Tonini conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. On July 15, 1960, they recorded an incomplete test version of “D’Amor al dolce impero.” Shortly afterwards, the rest of the July 1960 sessions was canceled; the test recording of the Armida aria was never completed or published. It is now considered lost, as the tape is no longer to be found in EMI’s vaults (the other two arias recorded on the same occasion do, however, survive; they were finally released by EMI in September of 1997).

     Despite its shortcomings — a performing version with cuts and some rearrangements certainly not sanctioned by the composer, a partially inadequate cast, unprofessionally recorded sound — this world premiere recording of Rossini’s Armida offers at least one clear advantage over other versions. The title role (a Colbran role par excellence, as we have seen), is sung with an unequaled technical brilliance, dramatic intensity and range, vocal power and beauty. “Rossini did not like his coloratura parts to be sung by tiny, soft voices; he wanted voices that were full, vigorous, incisive. Maria Callas has shown us what he meant, and Armida is probably the finest example of her ability in this field,” stated the famous musicologist Rodolfo Celletti in 1969. Rather than light coloratura voices with little or no dramatic weight, or delicate lyric sopranos with an imperfect bel canto technique and general lack of expressiveness, here we have a genuine dramatic coloratura and a rare soprano sfogato, able not only to do full justice to Rossini’s score and bring the role fully to life, but also convey an aura of mystery that should ideally surround Armida’s character. Probably no other singer has achieved so much since the creator of the role, Isabella Colbran. The dazzling brilliance of Callas’ singing, the richness and beauty of her voice, the impeccable accuracy in the execution of the written ornaments, the precision of the mighty and frequently interpolated sopracuti, the exciting leaps to her lower, contralto-like register, the dramatic intensity and sincerity of feeling, the unerring sense of line and Rossini’s style, her passionate identification with the character’s predicament — are among the qualities that make this document one of the most phenomenal (if not indeed the most phenomenal) of Callas’ nearly eighty known complete opera recordings.

© Milan Petkovic, 2002