Offbeat Bellini Sheds New Light On Bel Canto Era

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In a semi-staged production by Teatro Nuovo, soprano Christine Lyons sang Alaide, the ‘stranger’ of  Bellini’s melodic, confusingly plotted ‘La Straniera,’ opposite baritone Steven LaBrie’s Valdeburgo. (Production photos by Steven Pisano)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK – After 20 years of directing Bel Canto at Caramoor, the music festival in Katonah, N.Y., Will Crutchfield moved his operatic projects a few miles away to the campus of SUNY Purchase to found a new educational and performing venture, Teatro Nuovo. The second edition of this academy culminated in two semi-staged operas from the early romantic genre. After an out-of-town tryout in Purchase, the company delivered an exciting and revelatory performance of Bellini’s La Straniera at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater on July 17.

Will Crutchfield played fortepiano and cued the chorus and soloists.

Crutchfield’s project reflects years of study of vocal and instrumental performance practices in an era that has received far less attention than the three centuries that preceded it. In his efforts to discover the secrets of older styles of singing, Crutchfield has eschewed the typical HIP research-oriented study and instead delved into the oldest recordings of singers whose training had roots in the bel canto era.

Listening beyond the scratches and problematic acoustics inherent in the earliest sound technology, he has analyzed details of vocal production, phrasing, and ornamentation with the goal of better understanding how the music might have sounded. His methods and thinking can be sampled on the Teatro Nuovo Record of the Week pages, where he writes, “Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing ‒ primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice.”

A listen to one or two of these recordings (if you can limit yourself!), along with Crutchfield’s commentary, will provide an excellent idea of the kind of close attention given to the skills that singers were once expected to bring to their art. From the aural evidence, Teatro Nuovo’s students have internalized these lessons, or are in the process of doing so.

Derrek Stark’s sweet tenor made Arturo almost seem sympathetic.

An essential element of recreating an older sound is the composition and arrangement of the orchestra. For the Bellini, the orchestra’s 46 instrumentalists, playing original or replica 19th-century instruments, were arrayed for maximum eye contact with one another and with the singers. In the center, two rows of violins sat facing each other, with the concertmaster and keyboard player facing the stage and directing from the middle. Flanking them were pairs of cellos, then violas, then basses.

Winds sat behind the violins, close to the stage and facing the leaders, and brass and percussion filled in behind the strings. The floor of the “pit” was at seating level, allowing the players to easily see the singers. The result was like chamber music, with the lead violinist (the energetic Jakob Lehmann) using body language as he played to signal the ensemble and the singers often providing the lead impulse for the orchestra to follow.

Crutchfield played fortepiano and cued the chorus and, when necessary, the soloists. While it might seem a cheat that the so-called semi-staging placed the soloists front and center, the now passé static park-and-bark style of opera performance might well harken back to a time when the diva or divo called the shots and singers and obbligato instrumentalists could respond to one another without the intermediary of a conductor.

La Straniera was a huge success at its 1829 premiere, but the plot may leave you scratching your head and perhaps even guffawing: In 13th-century  Brittany, Isoletta, daughter of Lord Montolino, doubts the affections of her fiancé, Arturo, who has in fact fallen in love with a mysterious woman. Alaide, the eponymous Stranger, lives in a lakeside cottage where, veiled to conceal her identity, she laments her fate in song. Valdeburgo, in Montolino’s court, consoles Isoletta, and urges Arturo to forget Alaide. Alaide loves Arturo, but she tells the frustrated swain that their love cannot be.

When Arturo overhears Alaide and Valdeburgo – who is actually her brother – plan to flee together, he kills his supposed rival, and Alaide is blamed. On trial, she avoids condemnation after Valdeburgo appears, and after she uncovers her face for the judge, suddenly deferential. She persuades Arturo to marry Isoletta, but he bolts. When Alaide reveals to him that she is the exiled Queen of France, now restored to the throne, the desperate Arturo takes his own life.

‘La Straniera’ trio: Arturo (Derrek Stark), from left, Alaide (Christine Lyons), and Valdeburgo (Steven LaBrie).

Among the clunky plot points audiences will recognize narrative elements familiar from works like Lucia di Lammermoor (premiered six years later) and Aida: the clash of duty and desire, an ill-fated arranged marriage conflicting with the love of an outsider, a bass go-between, nobles in disguise, and thwarted passion ending in death. Though La Straniera‘s plot is at best confusing, it bursts with turbulent passions and whiplash emotional reversals, most vividly expressed in extended soliloquies and duets that intensify as the ornamentation ‒ both vocal and instrumental ‒ becomes more elaborate. A contemporary director might have made much of the theme of an outsider’s persecution in society, but here the simple semi-staging ‒ mostly choreographed entrances and exits and mood lighting ‒ allowed the singers to concentrate on some very challenging music.

Soprano Alina Tamborini brought power and poise to Isoletta.

After attending one of last year’s operas (Rossini’s Tancredi), I appreciated Crutchfield’s decision to cast entirely from resident members of the Teatro Nuovo “boot camp.” While the 2018 guest soloists, many of whom had performed at the Met, were strong headliners for the new festival, this year’s young vocalists, who spent the last month studying and rehearsing bel canto style and technique, sang with an ease that gave energy and fluidity to the work.

Judging from the June 27 performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater, whose solos were distributed among chorus members, Teatro Nuovo boasts a strong roster of apprentices and resident artists, with a number of repeat participants. Word must have gotten out what a special opportunity this is.

Cast standouts included soprano Christine Lyons, whose rich, ample voice sailed through the demanding title role with power and poise. As Isoletta, soprano Alina Tamborini displayed a plush, flexible instrument with shimmering vibrato and a wide range, with well-knit but distinctly colored registers; her coloratura was especially expressive. Steven LaBrie’s baritone wielded stentorian authority as Valdeburgo, with rare agility in his bravura aria in the trial scene. Derrek Stark’s sweet tenor voice, which I also noticed in the big tenor aria in the Stabat Mater, made Arturo almost seem sympathetic; he combined ringing high notes with unusual skill in the lost art of swelling and diminishing the voice (messa di voce).

 Special mention also goes to flutist Joseph Monticello and oboist Kristin Olson, the latter displaying as much fluency with ornamentation as the singers in her expressive solo obbligatos. The chorus of apprentices sounded terrific, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing from many of them in years to come.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi!