• Armida: Classroom Activity

What You Don't Know Might Confuse You:
A Close Look at Armida as Popular Storytelling

For this activity, each student will need the reproducible resources found here.

CA_Armida.jpg

STEPS One of the challenges of appreciating Armida in our day is the assumption by Rossini and his librettist that audiences would be familiar with the Crusades in general and Tasso’s poem in particular. (And they may have been right in 1817: one British translation of Jerusalem Delivered went through eight editions between 1783 and 1802.) Today, the Crusades no longer cast so wide a shadow over our culture, while Tasso’s epic is all but unknown to a wider audience. The activity therefore begins by providing a cultural context for Armida. Later steps explore the means an artist might employ to explore a historical situation of such universal relevance.

Step 1: Assess your students’ knowledge of the Crusades. 

  • A series of religious wars between 1095 and 1291, initiated by European Christians 
  • The initial goal was the conquest of Jerusalem and the “Holy Land,” then under Muslim Turkish rule 
  • Troops were sent from the regions we now know as France, Italy, Germany and England, among other European countries 
  • The term “Crusade” comes from the Latin crux, or cross, referring to the Christian symbol

It’s not hard to understand how a series of wars carried out over two centuries resulted in deep public awareness and inspired much in the way of literature and music. By Rossini’s time, the symbols and legends of the Crusades were ubiquitous in European culture. There was nothing inherently surprising about setting a story in a Crusader camp.

(If you have time, you may want your students to research the Crusades either online or in a library. A good starting place is the “Internet Medieval Sourcebook” at www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook1k.html.)

Step 2: What would it have been like to hear a story about the Crusades in 1817? Just as stories about vampires, cowboys, and aliens are common in our culture today, so the Crusades and Crusader imagery were commonly known in 1817. Track 1 provides an example. Here, Goffredo, the captain of this Crusader band, is explaining why he must wait before offering Armida the military help she has requested.

GOFFREDO : Reina, senti.
In servigio del cielo,
Sangue e sudor da noi si spande.
Rieda in libertà Sionne; su quel
monte
Di nostra fede ondeggi
Il venerato segno,
E poi si pensi al tuo perduto regno.

Princess, listen.
In the service of heaven, we give
Our blood and sweat.
When Zion is free, when the symbol
Of our faith waves on that ancient
Hill, then we will be able to think of
The kingdom you have lost.



At this point, about 15 minutes into the opera, Goffredo is the first character to allude specifically to the Crusades: By “Zion” he means the city of Jerusalem, the Crusaders’ military objective. Plainly, librettist Giovanni Schmidt expects audiences to know what Goffredo is talking about. It’s as if a cowboy in a movie today mentioned Texas.

Such references are elements of a specific storytelling convention, or genre. A genre is a category of story that includes certain consistent features—types of behavior, characters, clothing, weaponry, locations, and so forth. The kinds of stories mentioned above—vampire stories, westerns, science fiction—are all genres familiar to us today.

One interesting aspect of a genre is that, while it dictates many details of a story’s framework, it doesn’t necessarily dictate the plot. Armida is an excellent example. It’s set during the Crusades. The main male characters are all Crusaders, men on a Christian mission. The location is said to be just outside Jerusalem, where this army believes it is on the verge of victory. But almost no element of the opera’s actual plot is connected to the historical events of the Crusades. There is not even a direct mention of Christianity—the “faith” Goffredo refers to in Track 1.

To strengthen your students’ understanding of story genres, invite them to name others. They might mention, for example: 

  • mystery stories
  • action-adventure stories
  • horror stories
  • superhero stories
  • romance stories

Step 3: Divide the class into small groups. Each group will take one of the story genres on the list composed at the end of Step 2 and brainstorm details that characterize that genre. The characteristics might include settings, apparel, relationships, characters’ special features—anything that a contemporary observer would use to identify the genre.

Step 4: Once the groups have composed their lists, they can try out a creative process like that of Rossini and his librettist, by recasting the story of Armida in the genre they have chosen.

Armida can be broken down into a number of plot points, listed on the reproducible. Students should consider each plot point and determine how to transform it into their group’s genre.

Step 5: Share the new-genre Armida stories. You may want students to choose a representative to tell the story, or they might prefer to act it out. The goal is to be faithful both to each group’s genre and to Armida’s plot.

FOLLOW-UP: There are several ways to follow up this genre translation activity. For homework, students might enjoy choosing a different genre and recasting Armida yet again. Alternatively, they might choose a familiar genre tale like Star Trek or Twilight and imagine how Rossini could have taken the basic plot and character relationships and created a story about the Crusades to please his 19th-century audience.