Teatro Nuovo – A Dream Deferred

Conductor Will Crutchfield talks about the challenges involved in two bel canto works the opera company will perform at Lincoln Center

| 29 Jun 2022 | 02:19

Teatro Nuovo, founded by conductor Will Crutchfield, specializes in performing concerts of early 19th century Italian operas in historically informed style using period instruments and scholarly editions. In July, they are performing two seminal bel canto works in different styles. Gioacchino Rossini’s “Maometto Secondo” is a tragic opera seria about the forbidden love between a conquering Muslim Sultan and a Christian aristocratic lady.

“Maometto Secondo” was scheduled for the 2020 season but was canceled due to the pandemic. “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” a lighter more festive work, was substituted when live performance resumed in July 2021. Three of the “Barber” singers were originally cast in “Maometto II” and finally get to sing their original tragic roles – Hans Tashjian as Maometto II, Hannah Ludwig as Calbo and tenor Nicholas Simpson as Paolo Erisso. Simone McIntosh, a Canadian mezzo-soprano, debuts as the tragically conflicted Anna Erisso.

Vincenzo Bellini’s more familiar “La Sonnambula” is a pastoral sentimental drama with comic elements about an innocent village girl falsely accused of being unfaithful due to her unusual nocturnal habits. Coloratura Teresa Castillo sings the sleepwalker Amina.

I asked Maestro Will Crutchfield about these two contrasting works and their unique virtues and challenges.

What are your observations concerning Rossini’s opera seria works for Naples? How is “Maometto Secondo” different from Rossini’s other Naples operas?

“Maometto” is a powerhouse. I’m still in awe every time I hear even a section of it. The bravura arias are set in magnificent spans of music. The opera roars over you like a thunderstorm. We think of architecture in music as a German thing, but I don’t think any composer surpassed Rossini at building up great structures from small components. The music is some of the most concentrated and beautiful ever written. Some of that praise applies to all Rossini’s Neapolitan operas, especially the last few. My Teatro Nuovo colleague Jakob Lehmann has a particular sense of mission with those nine operas, and we hope to do all of them eventually. It’s a cycle of growth and achievement like the nine symphonies of Beethoven.

Is this the New York local premiere of Rossini’s original Naples version? “Maometto” was partially heard in New York City in a bastardized form via a mixed-up edition of “L’assedio di Corinto.” This conflation by Thomas Schippers took the Paris revision of “Maometto Secondo” (much altered as “Le Siege de Corinthe”) in Italian translation and mixed it up with materials from the original “Maometto” (including a contralto male lead that didn’t exist in the Paris revision). This pastiche was the vehicle for Beverly Sills’ Metropolitan Opera debut in 1974 alongside Shirley Verrett and Justino Diaz.

Whether it is a premiere I’m not sure. There could have been a concert performance in the past. I do remember the controversy over “L’assedio”, and it was part of the growing pains of the Bel Canto revival. Short version of a long story: Italy back in the day was friendly to revisions and adaptations, whether by the composer or a local maestro. Rossini had re-worked “Maometto” for Paris, and somebody reworked the Paris score for Italy, and that’s what got published as “L’assedio.” That’s no crime – but really, when we look at these operas critically and seriously, the composer’s original is almost always better, and that’s the case here.

A lot of people don’t get “La Sonnambula” because it isn’t really a tragic opera despite a betrayed heroine who has a sort of “mad scene” (sleepwalking scene) nor is it a comedy despite a happy ending with lovers reconciled and getting married. Opera semiseria is a unique but forgotten genre that emerged during the French Revolution breaking away from operatic subjects concerning classical gods and goddesses or historical royalty.

Opera semiseria is how composers learned to make music-drama from the lives of ordinary people, not heroes and princes. This was an important turning point. Before, operas about villagers or townspeople were basically comic: young lovers outwitting conservative elders, and so forth. But this genre was born from a desire to take their emotions and crises more seriously. You couldn’t get to “La Traviata” or “I Pagliacci” without this stage of development.

In the original score of “La Sonnambula,” the tenor role as composed for the legendary virtuoso tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini is very high and difficult – the standard Ricordi score used lowered keys for the tenor’s arias and duets. How are you and your tenor solving these problems of keys and ornamentation?

There is a pastoral element to “La Sonnambula,” with beautiful watercolor shadings, and I feel they sound best in the high keys Bellini originally used, if possible. It’s possible only if you have a very high and delicate tenor voice – Rubini was described by one 19th-century writer as “a counter-tenor,” plain and simple. As for ornaments – we have one real discovery to present. There are variations for the final soprano aria, “Ah non giunge,” by Bellini himself, but for over a century nobody has noticed them, because they were in a very obscure piece of sheet music published – of all places – right here in New York in the 1840s. So we will give opera buffs a chance to hear what the composer thought ornamentation should sound like.

You are not doing all this alone – tell us about your colleagues.

We have a wonderful new team member, the violinist Rachael Beesley, who is co-directing “La Sonnambula” with me. She is very experienced in the European early-music scene, and she is a major pioneer at bringing period instruments into the Romantic era with her orchestra in Australia. The co-director of “Maometto” (alongside Lehmann on violin) is Lucy Tucker Yates, who directs our Italian language studies and is also an amazing keyboard player and all-around musician. Jakob and I are very excited about adding new voices to the mix at Teatro Nuovo. It’s a crazy adventure, trying to rediscover what Italians were doing all those years with jointly directed performances, and not always a smooth process – but we learn so much from going through it!

“Maometto Secondo” will be performed on July 13 and “La Sonnambula”on July 14 at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center. More information and tickets are available here: https://www.teatronuovo.org/tickets-22