Dramma eroico in three acts by Joseph Haydn to a libretto by Nunziato Porta, after Torquato Tasso's epic poem Gerusalemme liberata; Eszterháza, 26 February 1784.
The original cast featured Matilde Bologna (Armida), Prospero Braghetti (Rinaldo), Antonio Specioli (Ubaldo), Paolo Mandini (Idreno), Costanza Valdesturla (Zelmira) and Leopold Dichtler (Clotarco).Armida, the most performed opera at Eszterháza and the last of Haydn's new operas to be performed there, received 54 performances between its première and 1788. It enjoyed modest success outside Eszterháza, where Haydn ran the court opera house; most later performances were in German. Haydn's work derives originally from an episode, extremely popular with composers and librettists, in Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (published in 1581); but it relies more immediately on librettos on the same subject by Jacopo Durandi, Francesco de Rogatis, Giovanni Bertati and an unknown adapter (set by Antonio Tozzi, 1775). Today Armida is among the most admired of Haydn's operas. There is at least one recording (with Jessye Norman in the title role), and there were several staged performances in the 1980s, including one given at the 1981 Monadnock Festival in Keene, New Hampshire, directed by Peter Sellars and set in Vietnam.
The overture is in three parts. The allegretto middle section anticipates the music of the magic grove in Rinaldo's Act 3 scena; the outer vivace sections anticipate no themes exactly, but musical topics relevant to the characters and situations of the opera are explored.
A council chamber in the royal palace of Damascus Idreno announces the arrival of the Frankish crusaders in Damascus. Rinaldo, a Christian knight, who has been bewitched by the Saracen sorceress Armida and is loved by her, offers to help defend Damascus against his own former colleagues, singing ‘Vado a pugnar contento’, a heroic C major aria with military motifs and virtuoso coloratura. Armida fears for his safety, but Idreno promises that if Rinaldo defeats the enemy he will have the right to rule Damascus (‘Se dal suo braccio oppresso’). Idreno's aria is another heroic piece, but with less vocal virtuosity and more orchestral bluster than Rinaldo's. Armida, left alone, worries that she might have encouraged Rinaldo to go to his death (accompanied recitative, ‘Parti Rinaldo’). Her succeeding aria, ‘Se pietade avete o Numi’, is a hybrid two‐tempo form in A major whose principal motif echoes the opening of the recitative. The piece ends with extensive coloratura and several opportunities for cadenzas. The intensity, variety and sustained virtuosity of this aria establish Armida as the emotional centre of the opera.
A steep mountain, on whose peak Armida's palace can be seen Scene iv begins with a short march for wind band, recalling the march theme in the overture. Ubaldo and Clotarco are seeking Rinaldo. Ubaldo's accompanied recitative (‘Valorosi compagni’) reveals that he is becoming bewitched. His largo aria, ‘Dove son’, includes particularly beautiful wind writing. The aria moves directly into a burst of accompanied recitative in which Ubaldo recovers his courage and decides to ascend Armida's enchanted mountain. Clotarco warns him that the mountain is swarming with monsters and enemy soldiers, but Ubaldo fights his way to the top. In scene v Zelmira explains to the audience that she has been co‐opted by Armida and Idreno to entice the crusaders to their deaths. Seeing Clotarco, she is struck by his beauty, and sings a charming G major aria persuading him to follow her (‘Se tu seguir mi vuoi’).