Opera fandom is often built around enthusiasm, territoriality and absolute interest in distinctive voices. Maria Callas, Rene Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, Luciano Pavarotti – they are all instantly recognizable by their tone alone. It’s no coincidence that all of these singers were major recording artists.
Theater Nuovois the brainchild of bel canto expert Will Crutchfield and flips that paradigm. It asks: What if all the singers on stage shared a particular singing school, and even a particular vocal quality?
At the semi-stage concert, Donizetti’s “Polyute” And Federico and Luigi Ricci “Crispino Ela Comare” Held Wednesday and Thursday at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, Teatro Nuovo discovered a diverse beauty within a brand of homogeneity aimed at reconstructing the bel canto style from sources that predate the mid-20th century revival and its recording stars.
The two cast of singers shared much of their vocal profile and style, and had a well-rounded yet colorful sound with an emphasis on quick, understated vibrato and legato, portamento, and lethargic coloratura. They avoided drastic changes in color and dynamics. And unconstrained by the need to project over modern orchestras in vast halls, they rarely pursued volume, loudness, or dramaticity of their voices, instead opting for unforced, uniform emission of sound.
Théâtre Nuovo made clever use of projection, leveraging historic set designs from the Metropolitan Opera’s 1919 production of Crispino and the 1840 French premiere of Poliute as the backdrop for each concert. This was a quick and cost-effective way to add theatrical context.
Donizetti completed “Poliuto” in 1838 and had already composed the operas that would immortalize him, “The Elixir of Love”, “Lucia di Lammermoor” and the so-called Tudor Trilogy. His long-held confidence can be heard in its extensive recitatives, slow melodic elaboration, and dramatic silence. After Poliuto infuriated the Neapolitan censors for portraying a Christian martyr, Donizetti rewrote it in French. However, the original Italian version took hold after his death.
As Poliuto, Santiago Ballerini embodied the house style virtues of Teatro Nuovo with a beautifully crafted tenor capable of reaching dramatic heights. His rival Severo, baritone Ricardo José Rivera, played the richest instrument of the night, powerful yet soft. As Polute’s wife, soprano Chelsea Renaire delved into Paolina’s conflicting emotions, flying seamlessly through the register with light blue hues and responsive instrumentation, even if some of her choices felt exaggerated. Hans Tasijan (Kalistine) had a rather hollow bass and was difficult to hear.
If “Poliuto” is a top-notch drama by a generation of talents who defy genre boundaries and challenge convention, “crispino e la comare” is a network comedy by brothers with a knack for reorienting entertainment. Everyday characters, such as a smug doctor whom he dismisses as a blue-collar cobbler, are innocently but sharply ridiculed. The score foregrounds the melodic font over the lean and efficient accompaniment. No one would mistake this for the glorious sophistication of Rossini or Donizetti, but there is a charm to it.
In a fanciful satire of the Ricci family, the Fairy Godmother gave Crispino the cobbler the ability to predict the life and death of his patients, turning him into one of Venice’s leading physicians, much to the dismay of medical experts. Crispino’s self-pity – even when the chorus tells him to shut up – turns to self-esteem, and Crispino alienates everyone, including his wife, until the fairies teach him a lesson about a short trip to the underworld.
Mattia Veni was a sensational Crispino. His handsome baritone and ability to self-parody allowed him to evolve from a suicidal, melodramatic sob to a self-indulgent pattern of rejoicing in success. As Crispino’s wife, soprano singer Teresa Castillo sang gracefully her spirited and flirtatious showpiece. Mezzo-soprano Liz Culpepper’s Fairy Godmother felt like the ancestor of Mistress Quickley in Verdi’s “Falstaff,” with her heart-thumping bass and wry humor. Dorian McCall, with his rich bass and light-hearted snobbery, and Vincent Gragna, with his rubbery voice and comedic style, emerged as rivals to Crispino.
The period-style orchestra at Teatro Nuovo has amazed me many times. This instrument does not have the unbeatable brilliance of modern instruments. But there’s something more personal and even intimate about woody bassoons, rustic cellos, translucent violins and seductively ringing clarinets. Period instruments can be temperamentally unstable, but players have never sacrificed tuning or polish.
The musk-like timbre of the orchestra made it a versatile collaborator. In the concertato at the end of Act 2 of “Poliuto,” he complemented the singer rather than competing with him, and his voice resounded with a gentle, lustrous voice with a transparent texture. In “Crispino,” that raw energy gave it a sincere and humorous quality.
In the Donizetti, Jakob Lehmann, who played the violin and conducted the bow, enjoyed accelerating the tempo in the Allegro conclusions, guiding the music with such delicacy that even staccato took shape. Al harpsichord maestro Jonathan Brandani effectively conducts “Crispino” from the keyboard, Bass and cello lead in the recitative.
In a short span of a few seasons, Teatro Nuovo has established a singular place of its own, combining the thrill of discovery with a shared sense of purpose.