Armida was the last work Haydn composed for the opera house at Eszterháza, which he ran for most of his career as part of his duties as the court's music director. Composed in 1783 and premiered in February 1784, Armida reflects the composer's growing interest in serious opera and reveals some innovative tendencies which might have found expression had he composed more works for the stage. Called a "dramma eroica" (heroic drama), the work is an opera seria very much in the eighteenth century tradition -- a historical drama in three acts, played out through the emotions of its protagonists rather than through plot action; extended arias and recitatives (rather than ensemble finales) take center stage. Haydn felt it to be his finest opera, and of all his dramas (none of which has found a firm place in the repertory) it has been the most often performed. It had over 50 performances during his lifetime (some even outside of Eszterháza), and it has had several modern revivals, including one by Peter Sellars (1981, at the Monadnock Festival in New Hampshire).
The libretto, by Jacopo Durandi, was derived from Torquato Tasso's epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered). This particular episode of Tasso's poem, the love story of Armida, the heathen sorceress, and Rinaldo, the Christian knight, had been used other by opera composers, including Lully and Gluck. The two main characters, Armida and Rinaldo, are each given a number of extended recitatives and arias, while the secondary players are reduced to rather one-dimensional representations. The extended scenes reveal Haydn at his creative best, bringing his sense of introspective drama and his talent for orchestral subtlety to the forefront.