Torquato Tasso, a Poet Both Obscure and Ubiquitous

Next Sunday at the Clarice Smith Center, the New York Baroque Dance Company and Opera Lafayette will perform Jean-Baptiste Lully's
Next Sunday at the Clarice Smith Center, the New York Baroque Dance Company and Opera Lafayette will perform Jean-Baptiste Lully's "Armide," based on a Tasso poem that inspired many painters and composers. (By Stan Barouh -- Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007

The legacy of the great Italian poet Torquato Tasso, once considered almost a peer of Dante, is hiding in plain sight. Although he is no more than a footnote today, he was once wildly popular, quoted by philosophers, emulated by poets, and a source of inspiration to painters and composers. Even his sad and tormented life was an obsession for the romantics, inspiring a play by Goethe, a poem by Byron, a painting by Delacroix and a symphonic study by Liszt.

The characters who romped across the pages of Tasso's 1575 masterpiece, the epic poem "Gerusalemme Liberata," ("Jerusalem Delivered") live and breathe still, in paintings by Nicolas Poussin and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, who captured them redolent with sexuality and pink-hued youth. And from the earliest days of opera in the 17th century, composers have turned to Tasso's intertwined tales of romance and heroism. Handel, Haydn, Rossini, even Dvorak wrote operas based on Tasso's amorous young things: the knights Rinaldo and Tancred, and their paramours Armida and Clorinda. If you've been to a museum, or to a concert of Italian madrigals, you know them well, even if you've never heard of the poet whose former fame is as astonishing as his current oblivion.

On Saturday, the Washington area's best period instruments group, Opera Lafayette, will give the first musical installment of something it calls "The Armida Project," a look at two immensely influential and beautiful operas based on the sorceress who is perhaps Tasso's most enduring character. Its performance of "Armide," the last and greatest opera by the 17th-century French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, will be heard at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, followed, in April, by a full staging of Christoph Willibald Gluck's 18th-century setting of the same libretto. Although focused on how two very different composers responded to the same text, "The Armida Project" also demonstrates the enduring appeal of Tasso's story line.

Tasso, a prodigy, began his poem, which recounts the sexual and military adventures of the first crusaders, while still a schoolboy, and finished it in the 1570s, when he was in his early 30s. It was a Christian answer to the epic poets of the ancient world, Homer and Virgil. The poem was filled not only with fantasy and romantic digressions but a stark contest between love (often for exotic "infidel" women) and duty (the crusader's moral obligation to capture the sacred city of Jerusalem from the Muslims). Armida, "to whom the Orient granted beauty's prize," is a temptress and a witch, who bedevils the crusaders' project. She leads off a passel of them on a fool's errand, and then imprisons them in her castle, built on the ruins of Sodom, but "lovely inside in every part."

But it is her romance with Rinaldo that most fired the imaginations of Tasso's followers. Rinaldo is the epic's central hero, the progenitor of the royal rulers of Ferrara who were Tasso's patrons. While Armida's charms are merely weapons against the other crusaders, she herself falls in love with Rinaldo and whisks him away to a bewitched pleasure garden where she "sipped sweet kisses from his eye, and sucked them from his lips." In what was the poem's most famous scene, and one of the most enchanting scenes in all of literature, Rinaldo is confronted with his dereliction of duty by two crusader comrades who come to rescue him from Armida's clutches and bring him back to battle.

Tiepolo painted the scene in the 1740s, hewing closely to the details of Tasso's poem. Armida exposes one breast and points a plump, pink leg at the viewer, while Rinaldo lies in her lap -- a soldier thoroughly emasculated by love. The Christian knights look on from behind a low wall, horrified, and perhaps jealous too, as great swaths of fabric billow around the voluptuous couple. Philippe Quinault, who wrote the libretto that is the focus of Opera Lafayette's "Armida Project," devoted the entire last act of the opera to this pivotal moment, ending with Armida, alone onstage, lamenting the loss of her beloved. In Tasso's original, Rinaldo goes back to war, Jerusalem is captured and poor Armida submits to Christian guidance. In opera, this would be anticlimactic. Far better to end with an enraged woman, and Quinault's stage directions: "Demons destroy the enchanted Palace. Exit Armida on a flying chariot."

Tasso's poem practically begged other artists to borrow and steal. Even Milton filched a scene (a conclave of devils in Hell). Tasso's descriptions also seem directly inspired by the artistic milieu around him. "And now he sees a woman's face arise / and now her breasts and nipples, and below / where modest eyes would be ashamed to go. / So would a goddess or a nymph arise / from the stage in the theater at night." It's hard not to assume he was thinking of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," from a century earlier, in which a pagan goddess also emerges from the water, her hair casually covering the parts "where modest eyes would be ashamed to go." When Tasso wants to emphasize the dramatic impact of a particular speech or confrontation, he habitually makes reference to the theater: "The castle shone like a proud theater / when the pomp of evening decks the brilliant scene."

Or vocal music. As Rinaldo flees Armida's embrace, she prepares a lament, a rhetorical and dramatic torch song to win him back. Tasso makes it sound operatic: "As cunning singers, just before they free / their voices into high and brilliant song, / prepare the listener's soul for harmony / with sweet notes sotto voce, low and long, / so in the bitterness of sorrow she / did not forget the tricks and arts of wrong." Tasso lived in a great age of theater, music and painting, but there's more going on here than just borrowing ideas from the other arts to give his poem pizazz. He's equating the music that sopranos sing ("high and brilliant song") with the dangerous and possibly satanic qualities of very sexy women. In Armida, as limned by Tasso, we have a vehicle for everything that will make opera an addictive art form for the next four centuries: virtuosity, display, theatrical confrontation, music as a form of madness, and smoldering, intoxicating sexuality. Armida, it seems, was the prototype of Maria Callas, and Tasso even anticipates the structure of the bel canto music that made Callas famous: First, lyrical notes "low and long," then roulades of musical fantasy, "high and brilliant."

No surprise, Callas was a great Armida -- in the title role of Rossini's opera in the early 1950s. As you trace the history of Tasso's poem into the 19th century, however, you sense the beginning of its decline. Years after Rossini composed his 1817 "Armida," he wrote to a librettist warning, "If I should counsel you, it would be to return with the limits of the natural rather than go farther into the world of wild fancies and diablerie."

Eventually, more and more critics, like Rossini, would be repelled by Tasso's fantastical excesses. Others, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, would be critical of his moralism. In his "Defense of Poetry," Shelley lumped Tasso with Euripedes and Spenser, great but lesser poets, whose poetry was diminished by their moralizing. In a sense, poor Tasso can't win. He is too imaginative and too serious at the same time.

As the poem began to fade, however, Tasso himself became a potent subject. He suffered from mental instability throughout his career, obsessing over his poems. It was a favorite subject for the romantics -- the artist, a victim of his own prolific imagination, hounded into insanity. Montaigne, the sober, 16th-century philosopher, apparently met Tasso, if we are to take a fascinating passage from one of his essays at face value.

"Countless minds have been ruined by their very power and suppleness," wrote Montaigne. "I felt even more vexation than compassion to see him in Ferrara in so piteous a state, surviving himself, not recognizing himself or his works, which, without his knowledge and yet before his eyes, have been brought out uncorrected and shapeless." There's a heady mix, here, of two things the romantics would find irresistible: A sense of victimization, and a false connection between genius and madness.

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