Gioachino Rossini was not the sort of composer to waste time and energy courting some fickle opera muse. Contemporary audiences expected him to deliver a rapid fire succession of hits, season after season, and Rossini was determined to oblige, premiering as many as four new operas annually at the height of his career. 1817 was particularly hectic. The Teatro San Carlo in Naples had contracted him to write a new work. With the deadline clock counting down, the enterprising maestro promptly turned to an old tried and true literary source, Torquato Tasso’s sixteenth century epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata, the starting point for any number of earlier operatic adaptations. Lully, Handel, Vivaldi, Salieri, Gluck, Haydn had all recycled the same material. Long before Rossini had transformed it into a dazzling early nineteenth century triumph, Tasso’s tale of Armida, the sorceress, vs. the Crusaders was a familiar classic. Two hundred years later, we scarcely remember Rossini’s take.

Voicebox: Opera in Concert has resurrected Rossini’s overlooked blockbuster with an exceptional, semi-staged presentation that strips away all the elaborate superficial paintwork to reveal the underlying fine detail. Music and drama are rarely more exposed.

The story is pure fairy tale. Minus the happy ending.

The time: the First Crusade. The place: the plains of Jerusalem. The recent loss of their leader has cast the Christian camp into mourning. In the midst of the Crusaders’ grief, a beautiful princess from Damascus arrives to plead for help. Her treacherous uncle has seized her throne at sword-point. The knights and their commander, Goffredo, are moved by her plight which, unbeknownst to the Christians, is nothing but a ruse to distract them from their true mission to capture the Holy City. The bewitching princess is, in fact, the Saracen sorceress, Armida. The Crusaders unanimously elect a new general and leader of the Damascus strike force, the celebrated hero, Rinaldo. Armida knows him well. She had once saved his life. Together in the moonlight, the two confess the mutual love they have secretly cherished for one another. Suddenly, Rinaldo’s long-time rival, Gernando, springs from hiding. Resentful of Rinaldo’s fame, the jealous Crusader accuses the illustrious warrior of womanizing. A duel. Rinaldo slays his brother-in-arms. Sickened by the act, the horrified champion is spirited away by Armida before the other knights can pass judgement on him.

Far, far away on a mysterious isle, Astarotte, prince of darkness, praises Armida’s power. Armida and Rinaldo arrive, borne on a dragon-drawn chariot to a welcoming chorus of demons. Helpless slave to Armida’s charms, Rinaldo cannot summon the will to condemn her for kidnapping him. The bonds of love shackle Armida to her intended foe every bit as strongly. To Rinaldo’s astonishment, the captivating sorceress magically transforms their refuge into a ravishing pleasure garden. The two celebrate their passion surrounded by dancing nymphs.

Ubaldo and Carlo, two of Rinaldo’s fellow Crusaders dispatched to recall him to service, step ashore on Armida’s island and are astonished by the beauty of the spellbound landscape. Aided by a charmed golden wand, the stalwart knights fend off the bevy of seductive nymphs before encountering their quarry. Rinaldo is alone. Reminding him of his sworn duty as a Christian knight, his comrades hold up a shiny shield to capture his reflection. Rinaldo is shocked by what he sees, a mere glimmer of his once proud, noble self. Still, despite his shame, his love for Armida endures. Ubaldo and Carlo drag him to their waiting boat where they are intercepted by Armida who realizes Rinaldo is about to desert her.  Despair and rage seethe within her. Rinaldo’s boat pulls away. Armida erupts with fury, destroying the pleasure garden with a hellish shriek of wrath and anguish.

There is an unmistakeable echo of Dido and Aeneas in Rossini’s piece. The clash of duty and devotion, love and abandonment makes for keen tragedy but the no-doubt mindful composer refocuses the conflict in a unique way that distinguishes his Armida from its antecedents. The central role, the beguiling Saracen sorceress, is a powerful, fully developed, multi-dimensional character, a determined, independent woman who demands to be treated with dignity. Rossini’s Armida has purpose. She will deal with whatever befalls her.  She will launch her own fate. She is, in many ways, so modern, so original that her story would not be revisited in opera until Dvorak composed his Armida nearly a full century later.

The dramatic inventiveness of this Armida is not its only distinguishing note. Rossini specifically wrote his transitional Romantic Age opera to showcase the considerable vocal prowess of his mistress, superstar prima donna Isabella Colbran, whom he later married in 1822. It was one of the most breath-taking of all coloratura high wire acts ever to grace the bel canto stage. And still is to this day. Armida’s range spans almost three octaves. Little wonder the task of custom fitting singer to score is so tricky. Maria Callas stamped the work with her highly charged signature style.  Renee Fleming in her way, too. Opera in Concert has more than risen to the casting challenge.

Quebec soprano, Raphaelle Paquette is an utter delight in Armida’s title role, able to fly effortlessly to electrifying heights, swooping down, often in the same breath, to the lower reaches of a register that, in any other singer, would be coveted mezzo territory. Her instrument is pitch perfect, polished and toned, supple and agile and perfectly able to conquer the twistiest trill, velvety and expansive enough to float on Rossini’s exquisite streams of legato.

If Armida demands a blaze of fireworks from its soprano, its tenor contingent keeps the fuses lit. Incredibly, there are no less than six distinct individual parts with repeated top note demands extending from high G to high D. The skyrocketing voices make for distinctive thrills. Act three’s all-tenor trio, “Unitevi a gara” (“Joined by contest”) is a virtual one-off in the complete opera history catalogue. Clearly, Rossini wanted a big sound from his Crusaders and a unity of pitch, a kind of musical metaphor to represent their sense of combined purpose. It was a daring gamble, spectacular if achieved, but hugely difficult to bring to the stage then and now. Nimble-voiced Rossinian stylists are notoriously hard to find.

Opera in Concert has wisely chosen to double up most of the tenor involvement with Edgar Ernesto Ramirez making a single role appearance as Rinaldo. Mr Ramirez employs great expansiveness and confidence in his engagement of the part despite a certain huskiness in a voice better suited, perhaps, to the more spinto-like repertoire of Verdi. Christopher Mayell’s Goffredo/Carlo, on the other hand, possesses the authentic Rossinian timbre with its light but ringing vibrato, an effective counterpoint to the darker, more sombre tone of Michael Ciufo’s Gernando/Ubaldo. As Goffredo’s brother, Eustazio, ensemble artist Andrew Byerlay steps confidently into the spotlight, colouring his vocals in rich, resonant shades particularly evident at the lower reaches of his impressively solid range.

The Opera in Concert Chorus, masterfully led by Robert Cooper, is uniformly superb, consistently dynamic and vigorous throughout Rossini’s ambitious scope of employment as Knights, Demons, Phantoms, inhabitants of Damascus and followers of Armida. Musical Director, Michael Rose, performs the unenviable task of  translating full opera orchestra to solo piano with enormous ingenuity and stamina.

Since its founding in 1974, Opera in Concert has maintained an uncommonly high standard of quality unadorned performance offered courageously and unapologetically in celebration of the human voice. Armida is a daring addition to the company’s inventory of ground-breaking Canadian premieres. Rossini would have undoubtedly approved. This was, after all, the composer who, when asked to reveal the secret of his opera success, answered in three words. “Voce. Voce. Voce.” Sometimes the best gifts come in the simplest packages.