One of the key elements in the history of the 40 year old Festival of Martina Franca, apart from bel canto and Baroque, is the re-discovery and valorisation of the Neapolitan school of musicians born in Apulia, like Piccinni and Paisiello, a theme which is pursued by the Festival since its origins. This year’s choice fell on Armida, by Tommaso Traetta, which marks an important contribution to the festival as it represents a revival of the Italian version of the Baroque masterpiece by Lully.

This was the first staging of Traetta’s work in modern times, and was delivered in the courtyard of Palazzo Ducale in Martina Franca; it was based upon the critical edition curated by musicologist Luisa Cosi, and the scientific and artistic relevance of this operation is evident. When it appeared, Armida was considered the Italian response to the colossal French Baroque operas. Traetta’s aim was to combine Italian style with the French, as at the time of the composition he was the music maestro in Parma’s Bourbon court, a milieu whose culture was rooted in France, but where the Neapolitan bel canto tradition was highly appreciated. He was requested to create the Italian remake of Quinault and Lully’s Armide, which was the most celebrated opera of the time. Its scope was to celebrate Emperor Joseph II’s wedding with Isabel of Bourbon-Parma.

The libretto of the huge five act tragédie en musique was reduced by Giovanni Ambrogio Migliavacca, a former collaborator of Metastasio. The result is an ingenious synthesis, in which the typical celebratory elements (choruses and ballets) have a fundamental role. Thus, in 1761, Armida and Rinaldo re-lived as an azione teatrale through beautiful melodies with an evocative orchestration. The work was also very successful in Naples and Venice: with this Armida an era of contrast between Italian opera and French tragédie lyrique is closed, an another opens, that of Gluck’s reform.

The link between Vienna and Parma symbolized by the wedding was of outmost importance also for the history of music. The 1760’s represent a glorious decade for opera seria in Vienna that included Gluck's Italian operas, some of Hasse's finest operas, apart from Traetta’s Armida.

This one-act ‘azione teatrale’ is a form that typically allowed a greater role for chorus than the ‘opera seria’. Among Armida's highlights are a scene in which Rinaldo falls under the spell of Armida, two powerful solo scenes for the protagonist, and a spectacular finale, ending with the destruction of her palace, in which accompanied recitative and cavatinas are mixed.

For this long-awaited return of a late Baroque work in Martina Franca, the production secured the presence of one of the internationally most-acclaimed conductors: Diego Fasolis, who also collaborated with the Festival in 2010 with Rodelinda. Fasolis gave the right tempos and homogeneity to the score. The music was finely conducted, and performed by the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia with deep sensitivity and commitment, together with the Choir of the State Philharmonic "Transylvania" of Cluj -Napoca, directed by Cornel Groza.

Roberta Mameli and Marina Comparato, two specialists of this repertoire, sang the two leading roles of Armida and Rinaldo. They did their best with proper singing lines, but did not impress much. Young emerging talents performed together with them: Federica Carnevale, Mert Sungu (both emerged from the ranks of the Accademia Celletti), Mary Meerovich, Leslie Visco and Leonardo Cortellazzi. The dancers of the Fattoria Vittadini did well as usual.

The direction was entrusted to the young French director Juliette Deschamps, whose staging was not always comprehensible, unsophisticated though it tried to be. The sets by Nelson Wilmotte were made up of parallelepipeds and a set of stairs, and Vanessa Sannino’s costumes were colourful and eccentric, yet quite ambiguous as to the style.

The staging team’s evident scope was to expand the spectacular potential of Traetta’s work, by exploiting all the theatrical potentials offered by the large courtyard of Palazzo Ducale. However, the staging and costumes were not much appreciated by parts of the audience, who instead warmly applauded the cast of singers and the musicians.