Review of “The Dawn of the Romantic Opera”: subtle and playful performances


Purchase, New York

After 20 years of exploring bel canto operas in Caramoor, conductor Will Crutchfield embarked on a new adventure, Teatro Nuovo, a summer training program for singers at Purchase College. Its first Bel Canto festival, nicknamed “The Dawn of the Romantic Opera”, opened last weekend with two semi-scenic operas from 1813. The most famous, “Tancredi”, was the first big success. by Gioachino Rossini; “Medea in Corinto” by Giovanni Simone Mayr was a fascinating accompaniment. Mayr, then one of the dominant opera composers in Europe, was, in a way, the missing link between Mozart and Rossini, who would soon supplant him as ruler of the opera kingdom.

The most exciting – and entirely new – aspect of the festival was the Teatro Nuovo Orchestra: a large period instrument ensemble made up of natural brass, old woods, and gut stringed instruments. The musicians were arranged according to the early 19th century plan of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, so that the musicians were seated in a large oval, with half of the violinists facing the stage rather than facing a single conductor orchestra. The first violin, violinist Jakob Lehmann, led the orchestra and the keyboardist (Mr. Crutchfield in “Tancredi”; Jonathan Brandani in “Medea”) gave the singers benchmarks. The orchestra pit was raised to place the group just below the stage, creating a closer relationship between musicians and singers than is usual today.

The effect was transformative: these superb musicians brought to early 19th-century opera the kind of color and articulation that became the norm in Handel’s historic performance. Instead of exhilaration and sparkle, we got subtlety and playfulness. Solo players like M. Lehmann, Thomas Carroll, solo clarinet, and Joseph Monticello, solo flute were as exciting as the singers. Both operas will be rehearsing next weekend (there are also other events throughout the week), and anyone who cares about the historic performance shouldn’t miss the opportunity to hear from this band.

The available production funds clearly went to the orchestra: the singers, in concert attire, played a rudimentary game on the large empty stage. The four main roles (three in “Tancredi”, one in “Medea”) were performed by experienced guest artists; resident singers and apprentices take on the other roles and form the choir.

In “Tancredi” the impressive trio of directors included mezzo Tamara Mumford as exile Tancredi, who secretly returns home to Syracuse to reunite with his beloved Amenaide (soprano Amanda Woodbury), daughter of Argirio ( tenor Santiago Ballerini), falsely accused of associating with the Saracen enemy and sentenced to death. Mrs Mumford’s velvety mezzo, deep and deep extension and fluidity of the line expressively unites the romantic and bel canto vocal virtues in one voice. Mrs Woodbury matched it perfectly, with a powerful and clear sound and a precise tone. Mr. Ballerini was brilliant and vehement in Act I; he brought more variety and feeling to Act II, when Argirio realizes he has to perform his own daughter. Among the resident artists singing smaller roles, Hannah Ludwig stood out as Isaura, her beautiful and sweet mezzo complemented by the exquisite solo playing of Mr. Carroll, the clarinetist, in her one tune. Mr. Crutchfield and cellist Hilary Metzger provided the solid continuo for the recitatives.

Mayr’s orchestration for “Medea” had more layers and colors (as well as trombones, extra horns and a serpent, an archaic brass instrument), and when Medea summoned the spirits of hell to poison a gift for their rival, the band growled and whirled upward from the lower registers of the bass. Medea is a splendid character and a great diva role (it was first sung by Isabella Colbran) in the line of conflicting witches which goes back to Handel’s Alcina and others. She has committed many terrible crimes, including murder, to help her lover, Giasone, and is about to go into exile, since Giasone is going to marry Creusa, the princess of Corinth. Mayr’s portrayals of her inner upheaval are the highlights of the opera, from the duet in which she and Giasone face this change of circumstances, to her infernal invocation, to the tune in which rage and maternal instinct s’ confront as she contemplates the murder of her children.

Soprano Jennifer Rowley has been spectacular in the title role: with her fat buttered soprano, hooded with cautious vibrato or blazing with anger, she has found the dramatic compass of this explosive character. The two supporting tenors (powerful Derrek Stark like Giasone, the more lyrical Mingjie Lei like Egeo, Giasone’s rival for Creusa) were effective, if not quite in his league; Teresa Castillo was a thin sounding Creusa. As in “Tancredi”, the choir, prepared by Derrick Goff, sang vigorously.

Mrs. Waleson writes on opera for the Journal.

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