Rossini’s Armida is a rarely-performed gem. One of the reasons why this opera is not often performed is that it requires no fewer than six tenors, but despite the male-dominated cast, it is in fact a brilliant showcase for a soprano – in this case for Renée Fleming. When the Met staged it in 2010, it was specifically for the celebrated American soprano, making this production a must-see for all Fleming fans, as well as for fans of Rossini and bel canto operas.

Armida was first performed in Naples in 1817, a productive year for Rossini in which he composed four operas including the better known La Cenerentola and La gazza ladra. The subject of the Saracen sorceress Armida who falls in love with a Christian knight Rinaldo during the time of the Crusades – taken from Tasso’s epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata – was a popular one in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was set by Handel (Rinaldo), Gluck, Haydn and many others. Rossini’s setting is in three acts. In Act I, Armida seduces Rinaldo, who kills his rival Gernando in a duel and flees with Armida. Act II takes place in an enchanted forest (here more of an underworld setting) which is transformed into a palace where Armida and Rinaldo enjoy their love. In the last act, Rinaldo’s fellow knights come to rescue him and finally he is freed from Armida’s spells. Her virtuosic fury aria in the final scene forms a spectacular climax.

Although theoretically this is an opera seria, it is not, under Mary Zimmerman’s direction, taken too seriously. The stylized and colourful set by Richard Hudson vaguely represents the Middle East with its mosques and palm trees, but it is certainly not set in the time of the Crusades, but probably in a more recent Imperialist era. Zimmerman’s shrewd idea is to introduce acting roles for “Love” and “Revenge” who shade and manipulate the action of the characters, and come to a head in the final scene.

It is fair to say that Renée Fleming is not a Rossini specialist, although she has sung a number of bel canto roles in her career. But she has a captivating presence on stage as the beautiful sorceress and she sings with passion and dramatic flair, pulling off most of her coloraturas, if at times lacking a little in agility. She is very impressive in Act II “D’amore al dolce impero”, though she saves her best for her tour-de-force final scene. The real vocal fireworks come from the three main tenors: Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo, John Osborn as Goffredo, and Barry Banks, who doubles as Gernando and Carlo. Each displays technical brilliance as well as emotional sincerity. In particular, Brownlee’s singing is both spectacular and tender, and he achieves his high notes with ease. In the numerous duets, the creamy-voiced Fleming and the bright-toned Brownlee blend well, and the famous trio for three tenors in Act III, “In quale aspetto imbelle”, is also delightfully sung.

The opera features fine playing from the pit too, led by the Italian Riccardo Frizza. There is a beautiful horn obbligato in Gernando’s aria in Act I, a virtuosic violin solo in the Act III love duet “Soavi catene” and various woodwind solos in the Act II ballet sequence. Frizza’s affinity with this repertoire is evident and he conducts with both dynamism and tenderness, the orchestra responding with articulate playing. His tempi are crisp but never hurried, giving support to the singers yet maintaining forward momentum. The Metropolitan Opera chorus is also on great form and if, for an opera of 2 hours 50 minutes duration, the plot is sometimes slow-moving, lots of virtuosic singing and a dramatic denouement means there is plenty to relish here.