As one of Vivaldi's earlier operas, we might expect Armida to be full of orchestral tricks, with plentiful contrasts of timbre and texture alongside the kind of dazzling instrumental solos so characteristic of this composer's early phase. Surprisingly, and somewhat disappointingly, it isn't - for the simple reason that its initial venue, Venice's S.Miose theatre, was too compact for the grander scale orchestra that was soon to be used to such effect in, say, Tito Manlio. Such relative uniformity seems a weakness, despite the efforts of Frederic Dalamea to promote the opera's merits in the accompanying booklet (in which he perversely claims that instrumental colour and contrast is one of Armida's strengths). With the exception of a couple of horns and a bassoon in Act III, the orchestra is resolutely strings-only. And things are not helped by Rinaldo Alessandrini's refusal to enliven recitatives beyond the rudimentary harpsichord and bass - contrast this with Spinosi's occasionally riveting presentation of recitative in La fida ninfa. Sometimes, even Vivaldi doesn't help things. Given his genius for duet and larger ensemble writing, it is again disappointing to learn that such rare multi-voice arias as 'Questo ferro' never actually combines the two voices (it is thus technically a Duo rather than Duet). Elsewhere, Vivaldi's richly inventive interplay of two melodic lines forms very much a highlight of his work, whether orchestral or vocal.
This is not to deny that most - if not all - of the arias are engaging enough to sustain listener interest, with some of them being among Vivaldi's very best (like the beautiful 'D'un bel volto arde alle face' in Act I). We'd expect no less from Vivaldi. Recording quality too is uniformly excellent (and we'd expect nothing less from Naive). But for me, its lack of contrast, allied to the depleted score (Act II has been lost), mean that Armida doesn't scale the absolute summits.
So much of Vivaldi's work in the opera genre has been lost that we should be grateful for the efforts of Alessandrini in providing a workable score. Act II's unfortunate absence required Alessandrini himself to supply all of the recitatives and the opening four choruses for the reconstruction. This job he does superbly, showing a far greater grasp of Vivaldi's musical idiom than many a would-be imitator. The (pasticcio) second act's arias, mostly taken from Vivaldi's better-known operas, are attractive and well chosen. Overall, therefore, highly commendable rather than exceptional.