Casting a Spell: Dvorak and 'Armida'

Scene from Armida.There are certain stories that seem to hold an irresistible appeal to composers -- resulting in dozens of operas, sometimes over a period of centuries. But looking at which stories have that special appeal, and why, can produce some surprising results.

For example, there's a single story that was turned into operas by no less than six great composers: Lully, Handel, Gluck, Rossini, Haydn and Dvorak. Can you name it?

OK, so you’ve looked at the top of this page, and know the answer already. But if you played along anyway, your answer might well have been something more obvious -- say, a play by Shakespeare. Or you might have picked something from the classics. Sophocles, maybe? Either would be a pretty good guess. There are hundreds of operas based on Shakespeare, and plenty more about Electra and Iphigenia, Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, and the rest of that dysfunctional bunch.

But both of those guesses would be wrong. The real answer is one that wouldn't occur to most of us. It’s the story of Armida, from Torquato Tasso’s 16th-century epic Gerusalemme Liberata -- Jerusalem Delivered. But why Armida? Why would all those great composers have set this complicated story about a fierce yet sentimental sorceress who gets mixed up in the crusades?

It may be because the plot turns on one of life's central dilemmas: the conflict between passion and duty. That is, should you do what you know is “the right thing,” or should you indulge in what you really want to do, but seldom even acknowledge, much less pursue? Most of us never get to make that choice. Not really. So maybe, the story of Armida has been durable because it’s all about people who get to have it both ways, at least for a while.

Armida is a middle-eastern enchantress who’s assigned by her father, the king of Damascus to disrupt the Crusades. Thus her “duty” is to seduce crusader knights, lure them away from their duties, and then dispose of them. You might call her a paranormal Mata Hari. The trouble is, when Armida gets her hooks into the top crusader general, she also falls in love with him. In the version of the story featured here, set to music by Dvorak, his name is Rinald.

So, both characters have a “duty” dilemma. For Armida, it’s whether to explore her passion for this guy, or do her job and kill him. For Rinald, it’s whether to stay with his literally enchanting lover, or lead his crusader army onto some potentially fatal battlefield.

For a while, it seems both the witch and the warrior can enjoy their torrid affair, ignore their responsibilities, and actually get away with it. And that may be one reason why people who happen to like opera also seem to love this story. Who wouldn’t like to “have it both ways?”

In the end, both Armida and Rinald suffer miserably as payment for their temporary bliss -- which may be another reason audiences keep tuning in for this one. After all, if we can’t get away with ignoring our irksome duties, why should anybody else? And maybe, when we see the misery these characters endure in exchange for their pleasure, own workaday plight doesn’t seem so bad after all.

Many of the dozens of operas based on Armida's story -- including those by Lully, Handel and Rossini, are fairly well known. Dvorak's opera, on the other hand, is a true rarity. On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone, presents Dvorak's Armida from an ancient city in the composer's Czech homeland, in a production by the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava. Soprano Dana Burešová stars in the title role, in a performance led by conductor Robert Jindra.