Armida, dramma per musica in three acts to a libretto by Giovanni Schmidt, was first produced at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, on 9th November 1817.
The singers at the first performances were Giuseppe Ciccimarra (Goffredo e Carlo), Andrea Nozzari (Rinaldo), Michele Benedetti (Idraote), Isabella Colbran (Armida), Claudio Bonoldi (Gernando e Ubaldo), Gaetano Chizzola (Eustazio e Astarotte).
Goffredo di Buglione is the leader of the crusaders, who have been besieging the city of Jerusalem, in order to deliver the Holy Sepulchr from the Unbelievers, for quite some time now. The magician Idraote, King of Damascus, has planned a ruse to weaken the Christian troops: his niece Armida, herself also a practicer of witchcraft and his accomplice in the scheme, will pretend to have quarelled with him and will ask the Christians to help her fight him. The real aim of the plan is to draw the bravest crusaders away from the siege of Jerusalem.
In the Christian encampment near the walls of Jerusalem, Goffredo di Buglione calls upon the soldiers to pay homage to the remains of Dudone, leader of the Frankish paladins. Eustazio, Goffredo’s brother, leads in the fair Armida, who is escorted by Idraote, in disguise. Armida reveals that although she is the sole heiress to the realm of Syria, Idraote has usurped her throne: to get it back she appeals to Goffredo’s magnanimity, begging him to send his ten bravest paladins against the usurper. The Christian commander promises that he will grant her request, but only after Jerusalem has been freed. However, Eustazio and the other paladins, moved to pity and struck by Armida’s beauty, bring pressure to bear upon Goffredo, who at last, despite an awful foreboding, agrees that he will grant Armida’s request. Meanwhile the paladins elect Rinaldo as Dudone’s successor and their leader: Goffredo orders him to choose the ten paladins for the exploit. Seduced by Armida’s charms, Eustazio and the other Christian warriors follow the sorceress and her uncle Idraote to their tents. However, the election of Rinaldo has greatly angered Gernando, a Frankish paladin who has aspired to the leadership and who is envious of the young Italian to whom the leadership has been entrusted; he swears to be revenged. Idraote is satisfied by the way his plan is working out, for already some of the warriors have fallen into his power; he urges his niece to concentrate on seducing Rinaldo, the bravest amongst the enemy soldiers. Rinaldo now comes in and meets Armida: they have met before, because Armida’s magic powers once saved him from a band of enemy soldiers; they fell in love with each other, Armida openly declaring her love whilst Rinaldo concealed his passion for her. Armida upbraids him because he has deserted her to follow the fortunes of war, forgetting her love for him and her invaluable help, and is now fighting against her as if she were his enemy. Rinaldo tries to excuse himself, pleading his duty as a Christian and as a soldier, but he cannot resist Armida when she cajoles him with loving endearments, and, after a few moments of uncertainty, he decides to follow her. However, Gernando discovers that they are trying to leave and blocks their way; he accuses Rinaldo of cowardice in ironically cutting terms, before the gathered paladins: they fight a duel and Gernando falls to the floor, wounded. The followers of the two paladins now begin threatening amongst themselves; Goffredo indignatly accuses Rinaldo of disturbing the peace and exhorts him to give himself up as a prisoner. In the resulting confusion Rinaldo, following Armida’s advice, leaves the camp closely followed by the enchantress herself.
In a dark and frightening wood on the Island of Fortune, the realm of Armida, an army of demons – including Astaroth – arise out of the earth. Astaroth relates that Rinaldo has now succumbed entirely to the charms of the enchantress and explains how this might affect the outcome of the war. The demons vanish and Armida and Rinaldo appear, exchanging loving vows in a flying chariot drawn by dragons. Armida explains away her previous behaviour by revealing that she had only pretended to fall in with Idraote’s schemes simply to be able to see Rinaldo again; since he himself has already freed all the paladins who had fallen into her toils, there is no longer anything to prevent their forgetting their differences and giving themselves up entirely to the joys of love. Rinaldo has forgiven Armida and thinks of nothing else but sharing the delights of love with her, but he cannot understand why she has brought him to such a gloomy place. And so, with a gesture, Armida transforms the forest into a magnificent palace in which genii, nymphs, cupids and sprites appear. The two lovers give themselves up to amorous delight and Armida, accompanied by singing and dancing nymphs, sings the praises of youth and the joys of love. Then Armida summons up an allegorical vision: a young soldier is surrounded by wanton nymphs, all trying their best to seduce him, and he, after vainly trying to resist, yields to pleasure: his warlike arms are transformed into garlands of flowers.
The scene is laid in a magnificent enchanted garden: Ubaldo and Carlo, two Christian warriors, have been sent by Goffredo di Buglione to try to lead Rinaldo away from Armida’s enchantments and escort him back to the Crusade; Guelfo, Rinaldo’s uncle, has interceded for him with Goffredo, who is now disposed to forgive Rinaldo and welcome him back. Thanks to a magic wand given to them by the Wise Man of Ascalona, a magician even more powerful than Armida and Idraote, the two crusaders have managed to overcome all the spells cast by Armida to render her garden inaccessible; although the warriors are impressed by the beauty of the spot, they realize that it is all created by black magic, and with their magic wand they drive off the nymphs who try to enslave them with their songs and dances. Carlo and Ubaldo hide in a thicket as Armida and Rinaldo come in, repeating their joint protestations of love and vowing to be forever true to one another. When Armida leaves Rinaldo alone, Carlo and Ubaldo reveal themselves to him: his companion at arms bitterly reproach him because he, the bravest among the brave, is spending all his time dallying with a pagan woman whilst the Holy War is raging and each individual soldier thinks only of the cause, the liberation of the city of Jerusalem. Finally they give him a highly polished shield in which he sees himself reflected, enfeebled and anything but warlike. Rinaldo, horrified, is full of shame and remorse but confesses that he is still in love with Armida: encouraged by Carlo and Ubaldo, he gets the better of this weakness after a struggle with himself and, having determined to follow the voice of honour and the will of Heaven, he leaves with his companions. Armida, returning, sees from afar Rinaldo going off with the two crusaders and overwhelmed by shock and by fury, she invokes the infernal powers: no answer is vouchsafed to her summons and the enchantress decides to pursue her faithless lover. Outside Armida’s palace, whilst Rinaldo still feels guilty of having abandoned his mistress, Carlo and Ubaldo thank God for delivering them from the dangers of the enchanted garden. However, Armida bursts in amongst them, still scarcely able to believe that Rinaldo has left her, and asks him the reason. With his heart near breaking, Rinaldo tells her that he must answer the call of duty but that he will always remember their love with the greatest tenderness. Armida then declares that she is willing to follow him anywhere, to serve as his handmaiden rather than lose him, but he rejects her offer, although he is very saddened by her distress. Armida, overcome by her grief, curses Rinaldo for his cruelty to her, but at the same time begs him at least to kill her and so put an end to her sufferings. However, Rinaldo is dragged off by Carlo and Ubaldo and she falls fainting to the ground. When she comes round she finds herself left all alone, and in her devastating grief she sees two spirits approaching her, one representing Vengeance and the other Love; after a hard struggle with herself she rejects Love and embraces Vengeance. Vowing to be avenged, she mounts a chariot drawn by dragons and flies away through the air, surrounded by flames and demons.