Armida, op. 115, B206
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
11 March 1902 – 23 August 1903
Premiere - date and place
25 March 1904, Prague
Růžena Maturová (Armida), Bohumil Benoni (Ismen), Bohumil Pták (Rinald), Emil Pollert (Hidraot), Václav Kliment (Peter the Hermit), Robert Polák, Bedřich Bohuslav, Frantisek Šír, Adolf Krössing, Hynek Švejda (the knights), Otakar Chmel (The Herald), Jan Vildner (muezzin), National Theatre Orchestra and Choir, conductor František Picka, director Robert Polák
not published yet
Author of the libretto
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets (2 behind the stage), 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists
Parts / movements
1st act: The Gardens of the Roayl Palace in Damascus
2nd act: The Christian Camp near Damascus
3rd act: The Magic Gardens of Armida
4th act: Oasis in the Desert
Hidraot, King of Damascus – bass
Armida, his daughter – soprano
Ismen, the ruler of Syria and a wizard – baritone
Rinald, the knight – tenor
Bohumír, Commander of Crusaders – baritone
Peter the Hermit – bass
Gernand, the knight – bass
Dudo, the knight – tenor
Ubald, the knight – bass
Sven, the knight – tenor
Roger, the knight – tenor
The Herald – bass
Muezzin – baritone
Siren – soprano
sirens, nymphs, fairies, knights, king's retinue, Christian and Pagan people, slaves, soldiers
approx. 2 h. 35 min.
After the success of Rusalka Dvořák immediately began searching for a new suitable libretto; opera was the only musical genre he was considering at that time. Nevertheless, it would be quite a while before he would finally embark upon the libretto Armida by Jaroslav Vrchlický. The composer initially sought further collaboration with Jaroslav Kvapil, yet – probably since Kvapil did not have the time available – this was not to be. Dvořák thus returned for a short while to sketches he had begun earlier for an opera inspired by Czech mythology, The Death of Vlasta. Before Dvořák, Karel Pippich’s libretto had previously drawn the attention of Bedřich Smetana as well, and, after him, Zdeněk Fibich, but neither of them had been impressed enough to write an opera setting for it. It is not known whether Dvořák made a final decision to use this libretto, however, when young Otakar Ostrčil visited him out of the blue with the request that he abandon his composition because he was working on the same text himself, Dvořák readily complied with his wishes. From the memoirs of Otakar Hostinský we learn that Dvořák had also taken an interest in his libretto for Cinderella at that time, but this initiative ultimately came to nothing. Long months of inactivity were extremely unusual for Dvořák. In a letter to his friend Emil Kozánek dated February 1902, the composer writes: “I have been without work for more than fourteen months, I cannot make a start on anything and I don’t know how long my current state of mind will continue.”
When, in February 1902, Dvořák mentioned in the company of poet Jaroslav Vrchlický that he had vainly been seeking a high-quality libretto for a new opera, Vrchlický pointed out to the composer that he had offered him a libretto entitled Armida fourteen years previously but, back then, Dvořák – perhaps engrossed in other composition work – had rejected it. The fact that the composer was even now at pains to decide whether or not Vrchlický’s text was suitable for his requirements, is eloquently summed up by Jaroslav Kvapil: “It was certainly a difficult birth back then: Dvořák forced himself to do it; the subject matter and form didn’t feel right for him, and I witnessed his bad temper on several occasions. Sometimes he blamed me for leaving him in the lurch.” That Dvořák eventually decided to use the text for Armida was not because the libretto appealed to him, but more for the reason – probably quite justified – that he would in any case be unable to lay his hands on anything better. Dvořák was also persuaded by the libretto’s universal theme, which he had sought for years in his endeavours to make an impact on the foreign stage, and the fact that the text in certain respects (obligations towards God versus love and passion) was reminiscent of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, an opera Dvořák had always greatly admired. He began writing the music in March 1902 and, as his work on the opera progressed, he gradually warmed to the libretto and, according to the memoirs of his son Otakar, he was even entirely complimentary about it. Work on the opera lasted almost a year and a half.
The story of the opera had been treated many times before Dvořák (Lully, Salieri, Gluck, Mysliveček, Haydn, Cherubini, and Rossini, among others). It is based on an episode from the epic tale by Italian Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso, La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, 1580) which, with a considerable dose of fantasy, describes events unfolding during the First Crusade. In Tasso’s epic poem Armida is a sorceress whom the poet modelled on the powerful enchantress Circe, a figure from Greek mythology. Czech poet Jaroslav Vrchlický studied Tasso’s epic during the mid-1880s, and his work on a translation of La Gerusalemme liberata (to this day the only complete translation into Czech) gave him the idea to write an opera libretto on the same theme. He did not follow the Italian model to the letter, it merely served him as the basic inspiration for his own conception of the story. The text, arranged into four acts, has a number of shortcomings, including somewhat awkward rhymes and, in certain places, extremely lacklustre verse. The heart of the story, as envisaged by Vrchlický, is the passionate relationship between Armida, the daughter of Hidraot, King of Damascus, and the crusading knight Rinald, each from two different enemy camps.
characteristics of the musical setting
Armida is Dvořák’s last completed work. It is the product of supreme proficiency in which the composer masterfully incorporated everything he had achieved and perfected during his life. Despite the difficulties he faced writing a musical setting to a text which was not ideal for the purpose, Dvořák succeeded in creating an exceptional piece of music. As in his preceding Rusalka, the basic principle of the musical-dramatic construction is the leitmotif, which is here introduced with a considerable measure of originality and invention. What is, however, most characteristic of Armida’s music is Dvořák’s ability to illustrate the exotic environment of the Orient. If we take a look at the composer’s entire oeuvre to date, we will note that he often resorted to the stylisation of various musical dialects. However, this was never the mechanical selection of existing thematic material. Whatever he sought in his music, whether Moravian folk inspiration in his Moravian Duets, impulses from folk dance types in his Slavonic Dances, echoes of Slovak folklore in his Gypsy Songs, the Russian folk temperament in the chorus scenes of the opera Dimitrij, elements of Negro music in his Ninth Symphony, or the distinctive musical expression of Native Americans in his String Quintet in E flat major – all have one thing in common: Dvořák’s voice always comes through. His unique invention continually and naturally blends with exotic influences to create a unified, homogeneous expression.
In Armida, as elsewhere, this supreme skill was brought to perfection, despite the fact that (or all the more so since) elements of oriental music are somewhat removed from the Czech environment and have little in common with the traditional notion of the Slav operatic genre. In his score for Armida Dvořák eloquently suggests the atmosphere of the Near East, particularly through his melodies and harmonies, but also in his method of instrumentation (e.g. female voices in combination with harps and woodwind). The viewer or listener senses the exotic environment in the very first bars of Act One, which is introduced by the call of the muezzin from the minaret, alternated in the form of a rondo with some of the most beautiful choral passages in the composer’s entire operatic oeuvre. We will find a series of similar passages in the opera – both in the choruses and the soloists’ vocal lines, particularly the occasional ornamental melismata sung by the magician Ismen, and also in the purely instrumental segments.
Apart from recreating the atmosphere of the Orient, a task Dvořák faced for the first time in the case of this opera, the composer also had to decide how to approach the scenes depicting supernatural phenomena. He had accomplished this previously in his cycle of symphonic poems written to Erben’s Bouquet, and in the operas The Devil and Kate and Rusalka. Dvořák’s settings for these scenes provide a remarkable testimony of the kind of sounds his musical invention was able to summon. Ismen’s very first “magic trick”, where he conjures up an image of the enemy forces out of thin air, is striking for its sound effects and dramatic impact.
The third significant element of the score is the way in which the music portrays the romance between Armida and Rinald. Lovers naturally appear in almost all Dvořák’s previous stage works, yet never is this relationship expressed in such erotic shades as in Armida. This type of musical setting is surprising in composers of Dvořák’s mould, yet the fact remains that he kept close to the original text and endeavoured to depict the central characters’ intimate scenes with maximum conviction. For example, the dialogue in Act Two (“Your hair” – “Your brow” – “Your sweet lips, your body, oh, let me thus eternally dream, and look into your eyes serene”) is literally charged with passion and sensuality, which the composer achieves through sophisticated chromatic vocal lines.
preparations and premiere
Rehearsals at the National Theatre began in the autumn of 1903. The soloists were hand-picked by the composer, and the conductor was to have been the head of the opera, Karel Kovařovic. However, at the beginning of 1904, in the middle of the rehearsals, Kovařovic requested a prolonged period of absence for health reasons, and he left the country. To this day, the circumstances surrounding Kovařovic’s decision are still not entirely clear, nevertheless, it may have been driven by the fact that he, himself, had attempted to write a musical setting for Vrchlický’s libretto, but without success. Another possible reason is that Kovařovic’s work at the National Theatre was criticised on a regular basis at that time, and the conductor may have been trying, at least temporarily, to escape any consequences. The rehearsals were thus entrusted – with the composer’s consent – to the inexperienced conductor František Picka. The atmosphere in the theatre was tense, with the composer often intervening and, after one particular session, he even walked out, taking the score with him and vowing to cancel the production. However, he was bound by contract and so the preparations for the premiere resumed. On the day of the full rehearsal, the artist singing the role of Rinald, Bohumil Pták, declared himself indisposed, thus the premiere had to be postponed for three weeks.
There are several testimonies in existence describing the atmosphere in the theatre at that time, for example, Dvořák’s biographer Otakar Šourek later wrote: “When I think back to that full rehearsal, which I attended, I have the persistent impression that those responsible for the production of Dvořák’s new opera were simply not giving out their best on that occasion; there was no willingness to accommodate Dvořák in all that was required. Quite apart from the intolerable stage designs [...] it was all too clear that Picka had accepted his task without the necessary enthusiasm and verve, allowing rhythmical ambivalence between the orchestra and the stage, and other lapses, to pass him by without stopping to rectify the inaccuracies.” Dvořák also invited Leoš Janáček to attend the full rehearsal, who states in his memoirs: “I had never seen Dr Ant. Dvořák so exasperated as he was during the full rehearsal for Armida. The baton could not control the orchestra, Mr Pták [in the role of Rinald] was indisposed and failed to appear; the participants took off their costumes, the rehearsal was discontinued...”
The premiere was universally acknowledged as a disappointment, not only with regard to the musicians’ performance, but also in view of its shoddy direction and stage design. A number of press reviews referred to this sorry state of affairs: “We are convinced that Vrchlický and Dvořák imagined the magic scenes in ‘Armida’ quite differently on a modern stage; their direction, however, was clumsy, with neither invention nor any endeavour to achieve an effective result, nor any attempt to avert a sense of absurdity in their provision. We did not think that a work by Dvořák could be quite so carelessly staged.” Despite this, at the end of the performance, the audience expressed its appreciation of the beauty of Dvořák’s music, but the composer was no longer present by that stage; he had begun to feel unwell and had left the theatre. The premiere was held on 25 March 1904 and, not long after this, on 1 May, Dvořák passed away. The cursory stage preparations and rehearsals for Armida had adversely affected the composer’s state of mind during the last few months of his life. Josef Suk’s recollections present an eloquent testimony: “Something happened which I will never forget. In my great regard for my Maestro and teacher, I never dared express my admiration for his works, whichever they happened to be. He certainly never expected to hear any words of praise. Thus it was all the more surprising when, after a performance of Armida I had attended, as he restlessly fingered his lapel as if he were tapping out a melody on the piano, he burst out with: ‘Well, aren’t you going to say anything?’ I was on the verge of tears when I finally managed to find a few sincere words of enthusiasm. ‘There you are, then!’, he said quickly and curtly, and his eyes sparkled for a moment, but their gaze by then was no longer of this world...”
“Here, Dvořák found himself in a completely new realm, having left behind his Slav soil, which nurtured the most beautiful flowers of his artistry, nevertheless, he truly remained his own person and, particularly in his lyrical and choral passages, he placed his most valuable gems. Armida is written overall in a more modern spirit than his previous operas. At times it relies on leitmotifs, yet it also contains independent items in which he is most at ease. Melody continues to play the greatest and most effective role, often to the detriment of dramatic expression which, in all Dvořák’s operas, retreats to the background. In terms of its instrumentation, so vibrant and scintillating, Armida possibly surpasses all his work thus far.”
“The full house at the premiere probably reflected uncommon interest on the part of the audience, which also assured this new work a lively and positive reception. Maestro Dvořák once again displayed all the rare virtues of his Muse in the lyrical and choral passages. Above all, one must appreciate Dvořák’s precious sense of melody. In his new work nevertheless, the Maestro yields to the modern trend and constructs various sections upon leitmotifs, yet he still remains unrivalled in his innovative melodies. With proper diligence one can learn to compose music, but only a singer blessed by God can sing from the heart. And, in this, no-one here can equal Dvořák today.”
Despite its undeniable qualities, Armida is presented on stage only rarely. The premiere at the National Theatre in 1904 was followed by a mere six repeat performances, after which it disappeared from the theatre for twenty-four years. Otakar Ostrčil attempted to revive it in 1928 and was somewhat more successful; on this occasion the opera enjoyed eighteen repeat performances before it ended its run. The second artist to restage Armida at the National Theatre was Václav Talich in 1941, but endeavours to include it in the repertoire were thwarted with the closure of the theatre by the Nazis in 1944. Only thirteen performances were held. When the theatre reopened, the opera returned to the stage in 1946 and, under conductor František Škvor, it saw twelve performances. The final performance on 11 February 1948 was the last chance to see Armida at the National Theatre for almost forty years. It wasn’t until 1987 that the theatre’s management decided to stage a new production (conductor František Vajnar) which, over the course of five seasons, played a total of 28 times. For the time being, the last production of Armida was staged at the National Theatre in 2023. Armida appeared at theatres outside Prague only sporadically: Plzeň (1925, 1943, 2023), Brno (1935 and 1994), Olomouc (1936), Ostrava (1941, 1991 and 2012) and Liberec (1968). The only foreign production of Armida (Bremen, 1961) is something of a curiosity – the title role for this staging featured the young Montserrat Caballé.
the story is set in the 11th century during the time of the First Crusade
In the royal gardens of Damascus the magician Ismen informs King Hidraot that an army of Frankish crusaders is heading straight for Damascus with the ultimate aim, under the pretext of liberating the Holy Sepulchre, of taking control of the East. Clearly this huge army cannot be stopped with weapons; the Damascenes will have to use subterfuge. They plan to send Hidraot’s daughter Armida into the enemy camp in order to bewitch their leader and sow dissent and hatred among the warriors. Ismen hopes that, afterwards, he will win Armida’s heart and her hand in marriage. Armida initially refuses to embark upon this difficult task yet, when she is shown a magical image of the camp and sees the knight Rinald among the soldiers, whom she had glimpsed during a gazelle hunt, she sets out for the enemy encampment – not out of love for her country or for her father, but out of love for a stranger.
Armida enters the Frankish camp and requests to be taken to the leader Bohumír. Peter the Hermit foresees the ruse she is attempting, and tries to expel her from the camp, but the knight Armida loves, Rinald, comes to her defence. He mediates an audience with Bohumír for her and Armida tells a fabricated story of how enemies had blinded and imprisoned her father and had then killed her brother. She asks the Franks to avenge her brother’s death and liberate the king and, in return, Damascus will surrender to them. Bohumír rejects this request, determined first to fulfil his mission and conquer Jerusalem. Rinald defies his will and decides to flee with Armida. When Peter tries to stop him escaping, Ismen appears on a chariot pulled by dragons, and takes the lovers away with him.
Rinald lies in Armida’s arms in a beautiful garden in the middle of the desert. He has completely forgotten about his mission. Ismen calls on Armida to destroy Rinald, but then he hears her professing that she loves Rinald and that she is prepared to use her sorcery against Ismen’s magic. Her magical powers are stronger than his, and the wonderful castle and gardens devastated by Ismen’s spells rise up once more in all their splendour. Ismen vows revenge and is aided in this by two knights who have lost their way in the desert. The knights, Ubald and Sven, are searching for Rinald. Ismen tells them that St Michael’s diamond shield is hidden in the castle dungeons and that anyone who sets eyes on it must follow it. The knights take possession of the shield and, unable to tear his eyes away from its brilliance, Rinald staggers after it; Armida vainly tries to prevent him from leaving.
After an attack by the Moors, Rinald is lying wounded by a small oasis in the desert, bitterly regretting his betrayal. His companions and Peter come upon him and assure him that, through repentance, he has been redeemed for his sins, and when he touches the holy shield, his wounds are healed. Rinald sets off to fight Ismen, whom he kills, but then faces a duel with another knight who stands in his way. At the latter’s mention of Armida’s name, Rinald replies by stating that the best that could befall her is death. At that moment, the knight lowers his sword arm and Rinald stabs him. It is only now that he recognises Armida, who has brought about her own death at the hands of Rinald. Armida dies in his arms.