While summer festivals flourish elsewhere, slim pickings for New York City opera lovers are available between the Metropolitan Opera’s spring closing and gala fall reopening. However, several blocks south of the Met, the enterprising Teatro Nuovo has been reviving lesser-known bel canto works at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. Last week, its forces enthusiastically tackled Donizetti’s Poliuto and Ricci’s Crispino e la Comare, and both rarities were deservedly greeted with long rousing ovations.
Bel canto, or “beautiful singing,” can be applied to most operas, but it has come to describe the hundreds of Italian works composed during the first half of the 19th century. Most have languished forgotten and unperformed for decades, but a few masterpieces like Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor remain wildly popular. The local exhumation of lesser-known bel canto works was begun in the 1950s by the American Opera Society and continued after its demise by Opera Orchestra of New York. For twenty years, the nearby Caramoor Festival also presented bel canto operas in concert under the leadership of conductor-scholar Will Crutchfield. When the Caramoor Festival decided to discontinue producing opera after 2017, Crutchfield founded Teatro Nuovo to continue evolving his enlightened performing philosophy.
Teatro Nuovo carefully coaches its performers on the intricacies of singing bel canto with its long expressive lines and challenging coloratura flourishes. The company presents younger, lesser-known singers rather than the established stars often encountered at Caramoor, and most importantly, its orchestra performs not in a pit but on the same level as the audience with period instruments—either authentically 19th-century ones or modern replicas. The sound of, for example, wooden flutes or valveless trumpets and horns can be astonishingly different from their contemporary counterparts. Teatro Nuovo’s flutist Joseph Monticello and clarinetist Maryse Legault must be singled out for their ravishing playing.
Following the tradition of the time, Jacob Lehmann served as Poliuto’s primo violone e direttore dell’opera, while Jonathan Brandani was direttore dell’opera for the Ricci, as well as maestro al cembalo (he played the fortepiano). Both favored fleet tempi and transparent textures that supported their singers beautifully.
Many of the most important post-WWII bel canto revivals have featured celebrated divas. Poliuto inevitably calls to mind Maria Callas, who starred in La Scala’s 1960 revival with Franco Corelli, and though she never performed Crispino complete, Joan Sutherland invariably offered the infectious “Io non sono più l’Annetta” as an encore. I heard Sutherland twice in recital and both times, she offered the Crispino, although she always sang an abbreviated version. Teatro Nuovo’s Teresa Castillo sang the much longer original with easy-going, glittering bravura.
One of Donizetti’s nearly seventy operas, Poliuto ran into trouble immediately when its 1838 Naples premiere was canceled because the king objected to its portrayal of a martyred saint. The industrious composer swiftly reworked much of the material into Les Martyrs for Paris two years later. The original would only be presented after the composer’s death in 1848. Teatro Nuovo used the 1838 version preceded by the Paris overture with its unusual a cappella choral section.
Poliuto contains some very fine passages, particularly its stirring second-act finale (which may have influenced Verdi’s Aïda triumphal scene) and the moving final duet for Poliuto and his wife, Paolina, as they resolve to die for their outlawed Christian faith. However, there are few memorable melodies, and much of the opera repeats familiar Donizetti boilerplate, particularly the soprano and baritone’s introductory scenas.
The opera is often praised for its concision, but Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto with its muddy religious conflict fails to create an involving drama. The long first act spins its wheels, and the central Paolina-Poliuto-Severo love triangle is unconvincing: the baritone doesn’t even get to be the villain. A minor figure takes that role—Callistene, sung for Teatro Nuovo by a miscast Hans Tashjian, whose pleasingly agile light bass failed to make much impact.
As the hapless Severo, Ricardo José Riviera revealed an attractive, bold baritone with securely ringing high notes. If he sometimes lacked ideal bel canto legato, he alone of the three principals appeared fully engaged in the drama.
No director was credited for the semi-staging (seconded by evocative projections of a 19th-century staging of Les Martyrs), so the soprano and tenor, seemingly left to their own devices, evinced little chemistry. Santiago Ballerini, a veteran of Caramoor performances of Donizetti’s La Favorite and Bellini’s Il Pirata, sang Poliuto strongly while only occasionally remembering to temper his fortissimos with an occasional piano. His self-absorbed Christian martyr bedeviled by unreasonable jealousy did little to win our sympathy.
In contrast, Chelsea Lehnea portrayed the torn Paolina with outsized flamboyance. Her alluring quick vibrato became harsh when she unwisely pushed her light soprano into chest voice. Though Lehnea often sounded overparted in music embraced by more dramatic sopranos like Callas, Leyla Gencer and most recently, Sondra Radvanovsky, her burning intensity and searing interpolated high notes ultimately proved hard to resist.
Perhaps a trio of superstars might have the necessary glamor to overcome the opera’s confusing text and uneven score, but even then, Poliuto seems unlikely to join the so-called Tudor Trilogy of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux as important rediscovered Donizetti works.
Crispino, too, may not join the standard repertoire of major opera companies, but for three of its four acts, it proved an outrageously good time thanks to a vivacious and well-directed cast headed by the superb young Italian Mattia Venni in a star-making portrayal of the endearing, then annoying Crispino.
Though dotted with a few arias, the fourth and final collaboration of composer-brothers Luigi and Federico Ricci soars via deliciously complex comic ensembles that rival the best of Rossini and Donizetti. Francesco Maria Piave’s whimsical libretto revolves around the supernatural intervention by Crispino’s fairy godmother (the Comare of the title) who appears just before the desperate cobbler is about to throw himself into a well. The Comare (portrayed with hilariously booming authority by Liz Culpepper) endows Crispino with magical medical powers which he uses to take down the town’s fatuous “real” doctors.
Crispino delights a little too much in his newfound status and must receive his comeuppance. Unfortunately, the attenuated, musically arid sequence in Hell (as the Comare reveals that she is in fact Death) takes the air out of a work that until then scores with knockout numbers like Annetta’s waltzes and a dazzling three-bass trio delivered on July 20 with show-stopping panache by Venni, Dorian McCall and Vincent Graña.
The Brescia-born Venni tirelessly traced Crispino’s fall and rise with a richly characterful bass-baritone that tripped through rapid-fire patter with a minimum of buffo schtick. Venni and Castillo made such a winning couple that it was too bad that Piave gave them so little to do together.
Fine tenor Toby Bradford as Contino del Fiore was also underused; after his ardent solo opening the opera, he virtually disappeared. McCall relished his showpiece aria, but like Ballerini, more dynamic variety wouldn’t have been amiss.
Besides Venni, the evening’s other hero was Brandani, who kept his busy soloists and chorus strictly together with such effervescence that I immediately wanted to hear the whole thing over again—or at least the first three acts!
Teatro Nuovo debuted in 2018, but after two successful seasons performing works by Mayr, Bellini and Rossini, it got hit especially hard by the pandemic. Its planned 2020 season couldn’t take place, and for 2021 it produced Rossini’s Barbiere outdoors at Damrosch Park where the amplification completely deflated the period orchestra’s unique contribution. Covid-19 forced the cancellation of its 2022 productions at the last minute, though Maometto Secondo was rescued and performed at the Rose several months later.
While the Met’s L’Elisir d’Amore was a delight last season, the company stumbled badly with its limp revival of Bellini’s Norma. Next season, no bel canto is scheduled there at all, making us even more eager for Teatro Nuovo’s summer 2024 season! Dare we hope to again discover rising talents like Riviera and Venni and to rediscover forgotten works by Pacini, Mercadante, Morlacchi or Paer? The possibilities are endless!