Excavations of the operas of Antonio Salieri have revealed many worthwhile works and have often helped reverse the image of the composer as the murderous hack portrayed in the line of dramatic works running from Pushkin (Mozart and Salieri) through to playwright Peter Shaffer and film director Milos Forman. Much more still awaits the adventurous director (did you know that Salieri wrote an opera set in the Caribbean and featuring an interracial marriage, with a text by the librettist of Beethoven's Fidelio?). The present work, composed in 1771 when Salieri was just 21 and here receiving its premiere on recordings, is ready for prime time, and it's a good deal more progressive than anything Mozart would write for some years. Salieri was a student of Gluck, and Armida, a hit at the time, follows in his footsteps with naturally unfolding action, melodic rather than spectacular arias, individual numbers switching from chorus to recitative to solo melody according to what is going on at the time, and an almost Beethovenian prelude. The chorus, in general, has a lot to do, not just chiming in ceremonially, and the recitatives, both secco (accompanied with a fortepiano, which may have been a stretch for 1771) and accompanied, carry the plot forward. The Romeo-and-Juliet story comes from a poem by Torquato Tasso depicting the titular Arab princess who is supposed to kill the Crusader Rinaldo but falls in love with him instead; operas were based on it by composers running from Monteverdi (whose version is unfortunately lost) to Dvořák and contemporary composer Judith Weir. In fact, Gluck had written his own Armide just four years earlier, and for the student to take on the master on his own turf was a gutsy move; its success indicates its high quality. Conductor Christophe Rousset bulks up his Les Talens Lyriques to 33 players, and the Choeur de Chambre de Namur, with 20 singers, is also just the right size. The cast is not overly prominent but is uniformly strong, led by fine, resolute arias from baritone Ashley Riches as the Crusader Ubaldo. Rinaldo is a soprano role sung by the fast-rising Florie Valiquette. The opera is interesting enough to inspire future productions and recordings, but Rousset's, lively and polished, will suffice for any listener getting to know Salieri.
Salieri: Armida Review
by James Manheim