Two Bel Canto Operas Revived, And Both Well Worth The Rediscovery

Mattia Venni as Crispino and Teresa Castillo as Annetta in Teatro Nuovo’s production of ‘Crispino e la comare (Photos by Steve Pisano)

NEW YORK — Musicologist Will Crutchfield’s yearly summer training program and performance series for bel canto rarities had its best showing yet with two traversals apiece this year of important and once-popular works well worth hearing: Donizetti’s “tragedia lirica” Poliuto and the comedy Crispino e la comare (Crispino and the Fairy Godmother) by the brother team of Luigi and Federico Ricci. After presenting the works at Montclair State University, Teatro Nuovo brought them to the welcoming, intimate stage of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater on July 19 and 20.

The troupe’s sensible presentational style involved handsome visual projections as sets, minimal props, and apt concert dress, but all the singers had fully memorized their parts and could fully inhabit the characters and interact. More courageously, the orchestra performed with an instrumentalist “direttore” rather than a conductor, in the style of the bel canto era; both vocal and instrumental phrasing was well coached in period style, allowing for a spontaneity and flexibility rarely heard in this repertoire with larger, conventional opera-house forces. To my taste, some of the Poliuto soloists over-embellished their music with cadenzas and high interpolations, but surely the era’s reigning virtuosos did so, too, and the ornaments themselves were not alien to the style.

Santiago Ballerini, a fine Argentine tenor, proved an excellent Poliuto.

Donizetti’s Poliuto, with a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano (his collaborator for Lucia di Lammermoor, Roberto Devereux, and other works) based on a Corneille play, was intended for an 1838 premiere in Naples starring the great artist of a tenor, Adolphe Nourrit. In the event, politics and censorship intervened — the subject being Christian martyrs in Roman-occupied Armenia — the composer wrote other versions and variants, including the French-language Les martyrs, and Naples only heard the original in 1848 after the composer died. As with La favorite (the original, superior version of La favorita), one can appreciate Donizetti’s constant search to rework formal conventions and clearly hear aspects that mirror the Verdi of I Lombardi, Ernani, and Stiffelio. Indeed, the three “creators” of the 1848 iteration — tenor Carlo Baucardé, soprano Eugenia Tadolini, and baritone Filippo Colini — also created Verdi leading roles. Beyond the musico-historical interest, it’s a compelling drama along proto-Verdian lines — a romantic triangle juxtaposing duty and faith with personal happiness.

Violinist Jakob Lehmann led Poliuto with skill and dispatch, though during the overture (borrowed from Les martyrs) the natural horns shaded flat, as these instruments will do. Drawing on the example of Rossini’s Ermione, the overture incorporates an offstage choral portion, not the last use of this musico-theatrical device in the score. Fortunately, the 21-person chorus sounded fresh and strong throughout.

Santiago Ballerini, a fine Argentine tenor nurtured by Crutchfield, proved an excellent Poliuto, attentive to line and dynamics and an impassioned actor. Playing his wife Paolina, young soprano Chelsea Lehnea manifested commitment and an extraordinarily agile and beautiful upper register; I’d like to hear her as Strauss’ Daphne. In lower declamatory passages, she resorted to a comparatively hard, unappealing chest resonance. A professional associate did this very promising artist a great disservice by bellowing “Brava!” on her entrance, as if Maria Callas or Leyla Gencer had risen from the grave — and after several quiet numbers.

Ricardo José Rivera as Severo and Chelsea Lehnea as Polina in ‘Poliuto’

Another Crutchfield mainstay, Hans Tashjian, disappointed as the Iago-like High Priest Callistene; a real trill and sterling command of style didn’t compensate for insufficient volume and almost comically stiff demeanor. The resonant yet graceful Ricardo José Rivera showed a near-ideal voice for Donizetti and middle-period Verdi as Paolina’s former beloved Severo, the Roman proconsul who arrives to punish Christian converts like Poliuto (and, eventually inspired by him, Paolina). A very exciting evening.

The Neapolitan Riccis — Luigi (1805-59) and Federico (1809-77) — individually penned both comic and serious operas that won success on Italian and other European stages. Together, they collaborated on four works between 1835 and 1850, culminating in Crispino, the work for which they are most remembered. Premiered in carnival season 1850 at Venice’s Teatro San Benedetto (an estimable venue that had launched Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri three dozen years before), the tuneful and inventive — though, ultimately, not memorable — score sets a somewhat garrulous “fantastical-comical” (“fantastico-giocoso”) libretto by the prolific Francesco Piave (1810-76), best known for Rigoletto and La traviata.

As Crutchfield stated in a pre-performance lecture, the work aspired to popular, not refined, comedy both musically and in terms of its verbal content. He demonstrated the elevated attention given to word delivery in pre-microphone recordings by the important baritone Antonio Pini-Corsi (1859-1918), who utilizes a bright tone, forward diction, and (to modern ears) a surprising degree of rhythmic freedom and use of semi-parlando. Clearly, the young cast profited from exposure to such stylistic niceties, though not everyone’s Italian proved flawless.

Wisely, Crutchfield deployed a native speaker, Brescia-born bass-baritone Mattia Venni, for the marathon-length, pivotal male title role, Crispino, a hard-pressed cobbler saved from suicide by a (contralto) fairy godmother who enables him through trickery to become a rich doctor. His luck falters with his abusive suspicions of his convivial wife Annina and his arrogance towards his “Comare” — who turns out to be Death herself — but Annina’s love redeems him in the end. Crispino’s instructive descent into Hell might have inspired similar journeys for distinctly non-heroic characters in comic works such as Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers (1858), Dvořák’s The Devil and Kate (1899), and Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper (1927).

But Crispino — a plucky unscrupulous striver whom Venni played to comic perfection, relishing every syllable yet maintaining a firm tonal core — has more in common with the hero of Henri Rabaud’s once-popular Mârouf, Cobbler of Cairo, than with the most famous cobbler in opera, Hans Sachs. The Met staged Mârouf (1914) in 1917, two years before its only run of Crispino, treated as an antique curiosity by critics despite a starry cast including Antonio Scotti, Sophie Braslau, and Frieda Hempel (whose Annina proved her last Met role).

Liz Culpepper looked and sounded authoritative as the Comare.

Liz Culpepper looked and sounded authoritative as the Comare. Hers is a career to watch. So is that of Teresa Castillo, a bright-voiced, fearlessly agile coloratura in the pre-Callas mode — Gianna d’Angelo and Jeanette Scovotti came to mind. She dispatched with aplomb some of the score’s many waltz tunes. As Crutchfield noted, the Riccis took Donizetti’s (more sophisticated and wisely more concise) 1842 Don Pasquale as a model and ran with it. In the role of Del Fiore, a languishing lover in the Nemorino/Ernesto mode, Toby Bradford supplied a pleasant, pliable “Irish tenor” sound and good musicianship. Crispino’s trio of lower-voiced enemies got lively portrayals — and some typical period “patter singing” — from Dorian McCall, Vincent Graña, and Scott Hetz Clark. The choral contributions were spirited and sonorous, and Jonathan Brandani did yeoman service as “maestro al cembalo.”

This was a delightful work finally to experience, though in places the comic numbers make their points early and then continue repetitively for some time. Poliuto — like La favorite, Maria di Rohan, and Dom Sébastien, other too-rarely staged Donizetti works — belongs back in the world’s repertoire. Crispino strikes me more as occasional festival fare for Wexford (which mounted it in 1979 with Sesto Bruscantini in the title role) or Opera Theatre of St. Louis. But one must be grateful to Crutchfield and his gifted, youthful forces for two such stimulating and style-imbued presentations.