„Where the hell is Purchase, NY?“ asked a friend who lives in Manhattan. Actually, Purchase is about 31 miles north of Lincoln Center, near White Plains. It is the home of Purchase College of the State University of New York (SUNY), and to opera lovers it is the place where Peter Sellars staged his famous Mozart trilogy at the Pepsico Festival back in 1988. (Presciently, one of those works, The Marriage of Figaro, was set in a penthouse in Trump Tower; Count Almaviva, a pussy grabber if there ever was one, had found the right place). Today the stage at the Performing Arts Center is home to a new operatic venture imagined by Will Crutchfield, musicologist, conductor, teacher, critic and impresario. He calls it „Teatro Nuovo“ and it takes up where his „Bel Canto at Caramoor“ left off after a twenty year run as part of the program at the Caramoor estate in nearby Katonah, NY. For many years Crutchfield has run an apprentice artist program, the intent of which is to train young singers in the methodology of bel canto singing. True bel canto has always included the art of improvisation of ornaments, much in the way that jazz musicians improvise or riff on a tune, and that is an important part of Maestro Crutchfield’s teaching. At Caramoor, the summer program always culminated in one or more bel canto musical works, performed as a concert in the open-air tent on the estate grounds.
Last year, Bel Canto at Caramoor and the larger music festival there amicably parted ways. Mr. Crutchfield wanted a more extensive program than he could run within the confines of the Caramoor summer music program, and he wanted a venue that would not be so susceptible to the vicissitudes of the weather. Thus the move to SUNY at Purchase. It remains to be seen whether the new venue will attract enough people from New York and environs to make a go of it as a festival presenting opera performances, but it does offer all the facilities needed for the apprentice program and a concert hall with good acoustics and air conditioning. This inaugural year Teatro Nuovo („New Theater“) offered performances of two and a half operas and assorted concerts and lectures scheduled around the festival theme, „The Dawn of Romantic Opera.“ The operas are Rossini’s breakout serious work, Tancredi and Giovanni Simone Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, both works which debuted in 1813; the festival included „two and a half operas“ because Tancredi was performed in two versions–the original 1813 Venice version and a version with all of the alternative music which Rossini composed for subsequent productions inserted in place of the numbers he had originally written for Venice. The alternative music amounted to about 40% of „Tancredi Rifatto.“ Different casts performed each opera.
Tancredi, based on Voltaire’s 1760 tragedy Tancrède, tells a chivalric story of feuding families in medieval Syracuse. (…) In the original version of Rossini´s opera, the still disguised Tancredi leads the Syracusans in battle against the forces of Solamir, wins and dies. Dying. in the second version Solamir declares Amenaide’s innocence, so that Tancredi returns victorious and to a happy ending with his beloved. (…) All of the alternatives were heard in the Sunday performance which Maestro Crutchfield called „Tancredi Rifatto“ („Tancredi Remade“). The Friday night performance on August 3 (and one the previous weekend) stuck to the original Venice score. It can be seen that Crutchfield’s purpose in „Teatro Nuovo“ is aimed at musical philology in the broadest sense–proper performance practice, variations introduced to the score, and (for the first time in America), the extension of historical performance norms to the orchestra. Perhaps this was the most interesting part of Crutchfield’s experiment: to hear Tancredi and Medea in Corinto with the same kind of instruments that an opera goer would have heard in 1813, with the same kind of leaders and even with the same seating that was used in an opera orchestra in the early nineteenth century. Thus, the players used antique instruments–natural horns without valves, wooden flutes, instruments with gut strings and even a serpent in Medea in Corinto. The orchestra itself was raised to near stage level (but not on the stage) so that players could see and communicate with the singers; first violins faced the stage with their backs to the audience and second violins faced them. (In Rossini’s day the second violins were often the students of the maestri–the first violins–so they would be looking at their teachers for cues and encouragement.) Most important of all, there was no conductor, a phenomenon which did not take hold in Italian opera houses until the middle of the nineteenth century. Instead, the orchestra leaders were the first violin (concertmaster) and the maestro al cembalo, the harpsichord, or later forte-piano, player. Usually, the composer himself would be the maestro al cembalo at the first few performances of a new work. In the case of the Teatro Nuovo operas, Jakob Lehmann was primo violino; Will Crutchfield himself was maestro al cembalo for the Tancredi performances and Jonathan Brandani was maestro al cembalo for Medea in Corinto.
All of these changes in the orchestra have long been made by groups wanting to perform baroque music in a historically authentic fashion, but it was a real innovation for a group performing nineteenth century music, at least in the U.S. It was a revelation to hear the music as it must have sounded to Rossini’s ears. The sound is at once more „honest,“ less homogenized, less smooth than hearing the music played by a modern orchestra, even if there is more room for off notes from horns without valves. Also, by having the instrumentalists able to see the singers, there was more collaboration between singers and instrumentalists and a better environment to improvise ornaments and variations (vocal and instrumental), making the musical line more interesting. In a way, it was like the difference between a studio recording enhanced with all the tweaks and retakes possible in a modern sound studio and hearing a live performance when some things are different every night. Although both have their positive features, the live performance is undoubtedly more exciting; so too with the exciting sound of the period orchestra.
Crutchfield was also able to have his Teatro Nuovo Orchestra (about 50 players) present for the whole rehearsal period, an unheard of luxury which makes the singer/instrumentalist collaboration and the absence of a traditional conductor feasible. Voice categories may seem odd to a modern audience, but the hero Tancredi is a mezzo-soprano or a contralto, his squire is a soprano, and the heroine’s father is a tenor instead of a bass or baritone. Guest artists for Tancredi (Venice version) included Tamara Mumford (Tancredi), Amanda Woodbury (Amenaide) and Santiago Ballerini (Argirio). Resident Artists (those who have come through the training programs of Bel Canto at Caramoor and Teatro Nuovo) included Hannah Ludwig (Isaura), Stephanie Sanchez (Roggiero) and Leo Radosavljevic (Orbazzano). All of the artists in Tancredi Rifatto were alumni of the training program, including Aleks Romano (Tancredi), Christine Lyons (Amenaide), Augusta Caso (Isaura), David Margulis (Argirio), James Harrington (Orbazzano), Junhan Choi (Roggiero) and Madison Marie McIntosh as the voice which echoes Tancredi in the opening alternative aria.
Mumford, who recently sang the lead in Saariaho’s L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan, was elegant in slim black pants, white jacket and very high heels. Her beautiful, creamy mezzo was especially good in the lower register and she negotiated the demanding role with seeming ease. Amanda Woodbury, who has just sung Alaide in Bellini’s La straniera with Washington Concert Opera was also very good as Amenaide, perhaps the most challenging part in the opera. She will be singing Leïla in The Pearl Fishers at the Met next season. Ballerini is a Crutchfield stalwart from Bel Canto at Caramoor, and his flexible tenor carried the day with that impossibly challenging second act aria. Aleks Romano, Tancredi in the alternate version, has made quite a career for herself lately in bel canto roles including the title role in Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais at Glimmerglass and Arsace (Semiramide) with Opera Delaware. She too was elegantly clad in a black pants suit. Her mezzo-soprano is one of the most exciting currently on offer–she has stunning flexibility and rich tone. Actually, not one of the other Resident Artists was unworthy, though perhaps I could single out Ms. Lyons and Ms. Caso as well as tenor Margulis. The superb chorus (all male for Tancredi) was forceful and perfectly trained.
The operas were semi-staged, which means that there was a bare stage and everyone was dressed in formal attire, but only the chorus sang from scores. All of the principals moved around the stage and acted their roles in a minimalist way. No one had their nose buried in a score. There was effective lighting (uncredited in the Program) which fit the mood of the action. In many ways it was more compelling than many a full production of this opera that I have seen, and in any case, it allowed one to concentrate on the music. And that music was very exciting in both versions. The „alive“ and honest sound of the orchestra and the voices well trained to sing Rossini and able to invest his music with appropriate variations and ornaments, as he expected, made for highly pleasurable evening and afternoon performances (Aug. 3 and 5, 2018). Crutchfield’s principal aims are to educate his musicians in the wonders of bel canto, but also to educate the audience in its possibilities and demands. If one attended the related lectures, demonstrations and concerts, one left the Teatro Nuovo weekend knowing a lot more about Rossini and bel canto. As pleasurable as the performances were, for an audience member attending the mini-festival, Teatro Nuovo was an intellectual treat as well as great entertainment.
Medea in Corinto: Will Crutchfield’s Teatro Nuovo gave us the chance to hear some rare operatic repertory performed by virtuoso singers and a virtuoso period orchestra, as I outlined in my review of „TheTwo Tancredi’s.“ Sandwiched between the two Tancredi performances, we saw an even less well known work, Giovanni Simone Mayr’s Medea in Corinto. The son of a village organist, Mayr was born in Bavaria in 1763 and received his earliest musical training there. (…) He spent the rest of his long life in Bergamo, where he started a charitable organization which offered music lessons to the children of poor parents; one of his first students (and certainly his most famous) was Gaetano Donizetti. Mayr and Donizetti became lifelong friends until the much older Mayr died in 1845, just in time to avoid seeing his star pupil descend into madness and death at an early age from the effects of syphilis.
By 1813, when Donizetti was still a student and Rossini’s star had just started rising in the north, Mayr was well known enough to be invited to Naples, which boasted the best opera house in Italy, with the best singers, the best orchestra and the best stagecraft. The commission was to write a work ‚in the French manner‘ (Naples was a French dominated court, ruled by Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law), which meant that it should have accompanied recitatives and could have a tragic ending, something almost unheard of in the rest of Italy at the time. The libretto was by Felice Romani, who would soon become the most celebrated (and best) librettist in Italy, penning works for Rossini, Donizetti and especially Bellini and even the young Verdi. The subject was mythological–Medea, Princess of Colchis–and the ultimate source was Euripides‘ famous Greek tragedy. Romani, writing his second libretto, was a classicist living at the dawn of the Romantic era, and the subject no doubt appealed to him more than that of his first libretto which was on the war of the roses (La rosa bianca e la rosa rossa, also for Mayr). (…)
Medea is a powerful opera and the role is a tour-de-force. In its way, it is more revolutionary than Rossini’s Tancredi, premiered the same year in Venice. Mayr was well known for bringing German symphonic complexity to his orchestration and allying it with Italianate song. Rossini would certainly benefit from Mayr’s example when he came to Naples himself in 1815 to begin an extraordinary run of stupendous serious operas along with well-known comedies. Partially taking his cue from Mayr, Rossini came to be called „il tedeschino“–‚the little German‘.
In Naples, Mayr had access to the same singers who would star in so many of Rossini’s operas: Isabella Colbran (Medea) who became Rossini’s mistress and eventually his wife; the great tenor Andrea Nozzari was Giasone, and the role of Egeo, who is not in the Greek myth, was introduced because Naples boasted a second great tenor, Manuel Garcia, who would become the first Almaviva in The Barber of Seville. A decade after the premiere, the great Giuditta Pasta would take up the title role in Paris and it would become central to her repertory. The music of Medea in Corinto, always melodic and eminently singable, reaches climaxes in Act II, first in „Caro albergo,“ a gorgeous extended aria with chorus and harp accompaniment for Creusa, and then in an extended scena („Antica notte, Tartaro profundo“) for Medea when she summons the furies of hell to her aid in some of the most remarkably „hellish“ music composed up to that time. Among the dark instruments summoned up for this music is a „serpent,“ an ancestor of the tuba with a snake-like shape. Creusa’s lovely aria with harp sets a false happy note as she asks the God of Love to „second my desire,“ and acts as a sharp contrast to Medea’s scene, which soon follows. For the Teatro Nuovo performances, the featured harp was put on stage for the former and a chorus of demons along with menacing trumpets and horns moved out through doors in the auditorium to sound appropriately foreboding, as if they came from the bowels of the earth. Romani’s libretto contrasts the „dear home“ („caro albergo“) invoked by Creusa and her call to the „God of Love“ with Medea’s invocation to „deepest tartarus“ and her call on the furies to kill Creusa with „the poison of Nessus, which killed Hercules.“ The fine literary parallelism and the frequent references to classical myth are typical of Romani’s work as are the lovely verses of much of the poetry. Like Mayr’s music, the libretto is far above average for the period. One might point out many other highlights, like the magnificent nine-minute overture; or the Introduction centering on Creusa’s „Dolci amiche“; Giasone’s entrance aria „Di gloria all’invito,“ which will form the template for the entrance of so many of Rossini’s heroic figures; Medea’s first act aria „Te solo invoco, Possente Amore,“ which makes her, however briefly, a sympathetic character; the great first act finale, which is also a template for coming Rossini operas; all the choral writing; and many of the duets. The music for this opera, unknown as it is to most people, is very fine indeed.
Like Rossini, Mayr straddles the line between the Classical and the Romantic, between the tropes of eighteenth century opera and those of the nineteenth century, the „primo ottocento“. The subject of the opera, the classical purity of the vocal line, the careful balance of parts is typical of the Classical period while the Romantic emotion, whether of Creusa’s aria with harp or Medea’s furious invocation, lead the way to Romanticism. Creusa was sung by Teresa Castillo, whose purity of line and forward, light silvery voice served as a nice contrast to Medea’s much heavier and more forceful vocals. Medea herself was sung by Jennifer Rowley, who is a current stalwart of the Metropolitan as Leonora (Trovatore), Roxanne (Cyrano de Bergerac), Tosca and Adriana Lecouvreur. She possesses both the heft and flexibility for the role, although on the dramatic side she did not look or act much like a woman scorned who is brought to kill her own children. Neither she nor Ms. Castillo were dressed in gowns which flattered them or accorded with the dramatic imagery of the story. Tenor Derrek Stark had the thankless role of Giasone, with two arias and two duets. He did a fine job in the long and demanding role. Baritone William Lee Bryan was an imposing Creonte. Mingjie Lei sang Egeo, the role premiered by Manuel Garcia. Minor roles were sung by Christopher Bozeka, Junhan Choi and Elena Snow.
Once again the most impressive part of the performance was the stellar playing of the orchestra on period instruments, arranged in early nineteenth century fashion and without a real „conductor.“ Leading the performance was Jakob Lehmann as first violin/concertmaster and Jonathan Brandani as maestro al cembalo. Also, the large chorus (male and female) were powerful and very well trained. I saw this opera a few seasons ago with a modern orchestra led by the excellent Fabio Luisi, but I have to say that the more rough and ready sound of the period band brought out nuances and allowed us to hear individual instruments in a way that the smooth sound of the modern orchestra hides. I thought it was very exciting.
As for the Tancredi’s this Medea in Corinto was semi-staged, with the singers in evening dress. (Giasone wore a crass, silver tuxedo jacket and looked like a croupier in a sleazy Vegas casino, but maybe that was the point). The principals all acted their roles, at least minimally (no children to slay, no poisoned gown, no chariot with dragons) and the movement and lighting were tasteful. There was no attempt to make a point other than the terrible points made by the myth itself, which are as shocking today as they were in fifth century Athens. By having a semi-staged production, Teatro Nuovo avoided the pitfalls of regietheater, as in Fiona Shaw’s deeply flawed production of Cherubini’s Medea last fall in Wexford.
Will Crutchfield would like to go forward in the future, prehaps with three completely different operas, perhaps eventually with full stagings. He gave us a „wish list“ which included several operas by both Mayr and Mercadante which have not been seen in modern times. But we shall have to see how the „convenieze ed inconvenienze teatrali“ and the ability to raise funds treat him and Teatro Nuovo. The audiences for all three performances we saw in Purchase were sadly small and disappointing. I certainly hope that he will be able to continue his Resident Artist program throughout the year and not just in the summer and that we will find new treasures waiting to be explored next year. Such a fine artistic endeavor deserves as much (Foto oben:Mayrs „Medea in Corinto“ in Caramoor/ Szene mit Jennifer Rowley als Medea/ Foto Steven Pisani). Charles Jernigan