Will Crutchfield’s Teatro Nuovo will make its New Jersey debut this month, giving statewide audiences the opportunity to experience, in their own backyard, the performance ensemble’s unique bel canto style through historically informed performances.
Two semi-staged operas — Gaetano Donizetti’s lyric tragedy “Poliuto” and Federico and Luigi Ricci’s dark comedy “Crispino e la Comare” — will be performed, July 15-16 at Kasser Theater at Montclair State University and July 19-20 at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.
“We sought out MSU because of the good reputation of the campus facilities and its proximity to Manhattan; we have a mix of resident and commuting participants,” says Crutchfield. “Since arriving, we have gotten to know more about the Cali School of Music and its creative ambitions, and we are exploring the possibility of closer cooperation. Nothing to announce yet, but the conversation has begun!”
This summer marks Teatro Nuovo’s return to a full series after the pandemic seasons, which also postponed its New Jersey premiere. “If it were not for the crazy pandemic interruption, this would be our third season of performing here,” Crutchfield says, “so we are incredibly eager to meet New Jersey’s opera-going public.”
Crutchfield founded Teatro Nuovo in New York in 2018 and serves as its artistic and general director. The organization is an expansion of his role as director of opera, from 1997 to 2017, at the Caramoor International Music Festival in Katonah, New York, where he conducted more than 30 classic Italian works by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi.
Teatro Nuovo’s name, which means “new theater” in English, doesn’t hint at the charming, beguiling bel canto jewels it performs on period instruments with a very high level of musicality. Its persuasion lies in the accomplished hands of Crutchfield, a bel canto revivalist who mounts neglected and little-known pieces alongside familiar showpieces.
“We like to do both obscure and well-known works,” Crutchfield says. “The obscure ones test our imaginative ability to give musical life to the dry print on the page. And what we learn by doing that helps us treat the familiar ones as if they were new, without unconsciously taking on someone else’s interpretation or following traditions that might have become stale.”
Operas fall out of favor for all sorts of reasons. Some require immense staging or heroic singers, or are simply too long (Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell,” for example), or the subject matter is too demanding or banal.
This season, Crutchfield pairs two bel canto operas rarely performed in America. First up is Donizetti’s “Poliuto,” which premiered in 1848 in Naples after a decade of compositional tweaks, including French renditions. Salvadore Cammarano’s Italian libretto, set in Roman-occupied Armenia, narrates the baptism and martyrdom of Poliuto, a Roman officer and nobleman. Santiago Ballerini will sing the title role and Chelsea Lehnea will sing his wife, Paolina.
” ‘Poliuto’ has been revived fairly often in Italy itself, but it is underappreciated internationally,” Crutchfield says. “This may be partly because the story, about an early Christian martyr, is a more natural fit for a Catholic country. But it is a thrilling story for everyone interested in the power of faith — whatever faith. And the score is Donizetti at his most eloquent and concise. It is a short opera that leaves a long imprint on the hearts of the audience.”
With its enchanting passages of rich coloratura and bel canto buoyancy, the Ricci brothers’ “Crispino e la Comare” is reminiscent of Donizetti’s popular, sparkling opera buffas and shows off the art form’s great demands on vocal agility, precision and legato. The work premiered in 1850 in Venice with Francesco Maria Piave’s spirited Italian libretto about the poor cobbler Crispino (to be sung by Mattia Venni) and his wife Annetta (to be sung by Teresa Castillo).
” ‘Crispino,’ on the other hand, really was forgotten,” says Crutchfield. “Most opera lovers haven’t had a chance to learn what a lively comic-opera scene Italy had in the 1850s and beyond — in the shadow, so to speak, of Verdi’s great tragedies. The libretto of ‘Crispino’ is by Piave, the author of ‘La Traviata’ and ‘Rigoletto,’ among many others. It’s an edgy comedy about a Fairy Godmother who turns a poor shoemaker into a rich doctor, and then drags him down to hell when he gets drunk and mistreats his wife. Spoiler alert: He is given a chance to repent, and all ends well. The music is by a team of brothers and you can tell they wrote it while laughing their heads off.”
Young singers from Teatro Nuovo’s Resident Artist training program will be on hand as understudies and chorus.
Teatro Nuovo aims to present the highest level of historically informed performing styles through a hand-picked orchestra of authentic period instruments of the bel canto era. A historical orchestral setup determines the physical layout of the players, instrumental sonority, leadership styles and musical practices.
This collaborative and transparent ethic means the orchestra is often arranged so that the highest number of players can see the stage and each other, participating as a listening ensemble rather than being led by a standup conductor.
This season’s program explores two operas written between 1838 and 1850. The 12-year period brought in new instruments, enhancing the orchestral tone and color, and marked the beginning of a shift to single direction leadership. For “Poliuto,” Teatro Nuovo’s associate artistic director Jakob Lehmann will lead the orchestra on violin and serve as primo violino e direttore dell’opera. For “Crispino,” conductor Jonathan Brandani will provide keyboard-led direction as maestro al cembalo e direttore.
Historically informed performance is a niche art form and its popularity has fluctuated throughout the decades. Conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norrington banked international careers on HIP repertory.
Like all aspects of classical music, HIP inspires debate. Detractors insist period instruments (and the use of old instrumental techniques that change the impact of lyrical lines) are incapable of completely expressing the full interpretative power of modern instruments that today’s audiences have become accustomed to, and therefore undermines the joy and romance of the music. Others believe period performances are incongruent on compositions written after the Baroque era and should be limited strictly to Early Music.
Crutchfield is a scrupulous musicologist and a seeker of authenticity but he doesn’t claim to have the final word on authentic performance styles. The fact is, the old composers only told us so much about their works through notations, scores, letters, criticisms and diaries left behind, and often what they said was contradictory.
Crutchfield aims for fresh and exploratory interpretations of the old works, guided by fidelity. It’s essential to understand the spirit and context of the time period, and to do this you need to be well-informed, both historically and musically. Teatro Nuovo remains faithful to the bel canto style of the time, to give the singers and musicians the opportunity to perform in the most accurate way possible, and to present the old composers in the best light.
“When these operas were written, performers had to master a much more extensive skill set, because they were expected to shape the music out of their own imaginations,” Crutchfield says. “The composers gave just a blueprint. They didn’t write out all the notes, all the softs and louds, all the speed-ups and slowdowns. You follow the blueprint, but you have to know how to fill in the details and colors with your own ideas. In the end, after you learn the rules and skills, you’re free to be spontaneous and creative. So studying the old performance styles makes us all grow as musicians.
“That may be the most important aspect of HIP, but there is also the sheer charm of hearing the instrumental sounds for which the music was created, and the fact that musical composition and performing style evolved hand in hand. Many scores simply sound better when approached with as much as we can learn about the style that went with them.”
Teatro Nuovo will present “Poliuto” at the Kasser Theater at Montclair University, July 15 at 7:30 p.m., and the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, July 19 at 7:30 p.m. Teatro Nuovo also presents “Crispino e la Comare” at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, July 16 at 3 p.m., and the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, July 20 at 7:30 p.m. Visit teatronuovo.org.
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