Two Spirited Productions of Rossini’s and Verdi’s Grandest Operas

After Covid-19 cancellations, two ambitious operas have opened at the Metropolitan Opera and Teatro Nuovo. The singing is not always perfect, but both productions are gratifying.

Nicholas Simpson, Hannah Ludwig and Simone McIntosh in Maometto Secondo. STEVEN PISANO

Rossini’s Maometto Secondo and Verdi’s Don Carlo, each among their composer’s grandest and most ambitious works, arrived last week courtesy of Teatro Nuovo and the Metropolitan Opera, respectively. Both eagerly anticipated revivals had been struck by cancellations but both proved rewarding.

Teatro Nuovo was founded just four years ago by writer-conductor Will Crutchfield to continue reviving 19th century operas, a valuable enterprise he began during his two-decade run with Bel Canto at Caramoor. After two successful seasons, Maometto was planned for the summer of 2020 but became a pandemic casualty. A rescheduled performance this July was cancelled at the last minute when a Covid-19 outbreak struck the cast. Tuesday November 2nd was quickly arranged at the Rose Theater though one of its four original principals was unable to appear.

Based on the true story of a 15th century invasion by Muslim forces led by Mehmed the Conqueror, Maometto seems an unlikely candidate for 21st century revival, yet it was recently staged in Santa Fe and Toronto as well as by Washington Concert Opera. Teatro Nuovo’s bare-bones semi-staging chose to ignore the libretto’s offensive stereotypes, hoping instead to present a strong case for the score’s striking formal invention. While the singing sometimes failed to rise to the challenges, Teatro Nuovo nonetheless made a strong case for this impressive work which Rossini would later reconceive for Paris as Le Siège de Corinth, and would eventually arrive at the Met in 1975 as L’Assedio di Corinto, the vehicle for Beverly Sills’s belated company debut.

Teatro Nuovo inevitably lacked Sills-level superstars; instead, four singers in the early stages of their career made brave stabs at their roles’ near super-human demands. Baritone Scott Purcell was not originally tapped for the bass role of Maometto; needless to say, he lacked the crucial low notes, though he displayed admirable agility for the invader’s stirring cabalettas. As the Greek leader Erisso, Nicholas Simpson too made empty growls with the bottom of his voice, while he also soared (often successfully) to stratospheric highs. His benign presence made Erisso a bit of a wimp, but he blended well with the two ladies in a beautiful trio that was a second-act highlight.

His daughter Anna, the beleaguered heroine who heroically sacrifices herself for her country, and Calbo, her sort-of lover, were both sung by mezzo sopranos and Teatro Nuovo did an exemplary job in casting a pair with quite contrasting voices. Simone McIntosh brought a shimmering high mezzo with a suave florid élan to Anna’s increasingly anguished music. Unfortunately, many of her ascents to high notes brought a harsh glare to her tone, though this decreased as the evening progressed. Her elaborate final scena ending in cascades of coloratura finally gave the Rose audience a sample of the bravura that must have enthralled Naples audiences in 1820.

Hannah Ludwig’s near-contralto displayed an especially lovely middle voice in the trouser role of Calbo but too often it seemed unconnected to an edgy top and a booming chest register. She bravely tackled her big scene (a Marilyn Horne-Shirley Verrett specialty in the past), but it fell short of its intended show-stopping effect. The shining feature of the performance was the top-notch period-instrument orchestra of biting strings and pungent winds and brass which reveled in Rossini’s vivid writing, co-led by Jakob Lehmann on violin and Lucy Tucker Yates on fortepiano.

While Maometto’s stirring music likely bewitched its audience, the opera’s drama went for little as the earnest singers were seemingly left to their own devices. The cast of this season’s rejiggered version of February’s Don Carlos production also often looked as if they were just doing their own thing. Just months ago the company presented Verdi’s masterpiece of the dysfunctional Spanish royal family miserably oppressed by the Inquisition in its original five-act French version, the Met brought back the opera in a surprising return to a four-act Italian version it hadn’t performed in fifty years.

Its raison d’être was surely the anticipated presence of Anna Netrebko, who had recently taken on the role of Elisabetta in Italian. However, Met General Manager Peter Gelb fired Netrebko last spring over her connection to Vladimir Putin. After the season opened, Anita Rachvelishvili withdrew from the role of Eboli leaving the cast with less surefire box-office allure. But the Met still coped admirably and if its current Don Carlo cast sometimes lacked the necessarily opulent Verdi voices which are increasingly difficult to find these days, it presented a cohesive ensemble that made a potent case for a “truncated” version that, though favored in the past by opera companies worldwide, has recently fallen out of favor.

Don Carlo on November 3rd hurtled swiftly toward its doomed conclusion thanks to Carlo Rizzi’s strongly propulsive conducting which took less than three-and-a-half hours, far less than the nearly five hours needed or the five-act French Don Carlos last season. Charles Edwards’s unit set remains wearingly ugly while McVicar’s blandly rote production featured a few only minor changes necessitated by the “new” conclusions to the third and fourth acts.

Rodrigo, Carlo’s fierce brotherly protector was suavely portrayed by Peter Mattei. The tall Swede, still singingly superbly well at 57, sounded lighter than many Verdi baritones but his passionate commitment made it work. Günther Groissböck too sounded unlike most Filippos; though labeled a bass, he lacked strong low notes and played the king quite unsympathetically. He exuded an implacable royal hauteur that commanded attention, and his head-to-head confrontation with John Relyea’s grim Inquisitor left the audience riveted.

With such a bad dad, it was inevitable that Russell Thomas played Carlo as a feverish, wounded soul. Singing strongly with ringing high notes, he, however, evidenced little chemistry with Eleonora Buratto’s sadly resigned Elisabetta. The omission of the first act, which shows their brief romance, may have been to blame for their lack of connection though their soulful duets were the evening’s most moving moments. Buratto was inevitably still finding her way as this was her first-ever Don Carlo. Her lovely soprano may be a size or two too small for the role, but she sang with a touching urgency, especially in her great aria “Tu che le vanità.”

Yulia Matochkina took over from Rachvelishvili with a fiery Eboli who ably negotiated the melismatic challenges of the Veil Song and had the gutsy ammunition for the Garden Scene. If her poignant “O don fatale” lacked easy high notes, her cursed princess made one look forward to future appearances by the Russian mezzo.

Without Netrebko to cater to, the Met will likely return to Don Carlos when the opera returns; meanwhile, the current concise Don Carlo made for yet another happy chapter in an unusually satisfying Met season.

Two Spirited Productions of Rossini’s and Verdi’s Grandest Operas