Not only is Armida Haydn’s most highly regarded opera, but the composer himself, on completing the score in 1783, referred to it as his best work. Topically interesting – love versus duty in the time of war – Armida is suitable for large and small opera companies alike and offers tremendous scope for imaginative staging. Based on the autograph score in the Royal College of Music, London, and on manuscript fragments in Eisenstadt, this edition has been prepared by the distinguished Haydn conductor Anton Gabmayer, since 1992 musical director of the Haydn Festival at Eisenstadt, with which Edition HH has forged close links.
Armida was written for Count Nikolaus Eszterházy’s palace theatre in Hungary and first performed there, with spectacular success, on 26 February 1784. Between 1784 and the theatre’s closure in 1790, it received a total of fifty-four performances, and was also staged in Vienna (1791), Preßburg (1786), Budapest (1797) and Turin (1804). The score itself was not published until 1965 (as part of the complete Haydn edition), and the Wrst modern performances (a concert version for Cologne radio, followed by a fully staged performance in Berne) took place three years later. The Haydn Festival in Eisenstadt gave notable performances during its 2001 season, and in 2007 Armida was one of the most important opera productions at the Salzburg Festival.
An Italian dramma eroico loosely based on an epic poem by Torquato Tasso, Armida is set at the time of the Crusades. Its theme is the superior call of duty over the seductive voice of love. The person at the centre of this dilemma is the crusading knight Rinaldo, who is loved by the sorceress Armida. Although it appears that love will triumph, Rinaldo succeeds in tearing himself away and Armida’s aVection turns to hatred. The opera ends with the participants pondering their fate against a background of martial music.
Haydn was composing for an orchestra and musicians he knew intimately, enabling him to experiment and to create a magnificent historical spectacle for the opulent stage at Eszterháza. Yet, by eighteenth-century standards, Armida is relatively short and its resources quite modest: there is no castrato part, three of the six roles are for tenor, and, apart from a trio and the Finale, there are no ensembles. A three-part overture of exceptional colour opens the work, and the story unfolds through a series of arias, containing some of Haydn’s most inspired music, and accompanied recitatives, which skilfully convey the “psychological” conflict at the heart of the drama. The second and third acts are especially notable for their extended, through-composed final scenes, but the dramatic highlight of the whole work is undoubtedly Armida’s bravura vengeance aria in Act II. Haydn’s orchestral tone-painting in some of the more lyrical and imaginative episodes, particularly the enchanted grove scene in Act III, reveal a composer of genius at the very height of his creative powers.