United States Rossini, Tancredi (semi-staged version): Soloists, Jakob Lehmann (primo violino e capo d’orchestra), Teatro Nuovo Chorus and Orchestra/Will Crutchfield (maestro al cembalo), Teatro Nuovo, The Performing Arts Center, Purchase, 3.8.2018. (RP)
Tancredi – Tamara Mumford
Amenaide – Amanda Woodbury
Argirio – Santiago Ballerini
Isaura – Hannah Ludwig
Orbazzano – Leo Radosavljevic
Roggiero – Stephanie Sanchez
‘Welcome to a new adventure!’ writes Will Crutchfield in the program for the inaugural season of Teatro Nuovo. After two decades at the helm of Opera for Bel Canto at Caramoor International Music Festival, he has launched Teatro Nuovo at the State University of New York at Purchase. (His Caramoor years coincided with my time abroad, so I never made it there, although I read the rave reviews.) Crutchfield envisions Teatro Nuovo as a singing institute that produces neglected gems from the early Romantic era, bringing the insights and performing skills of the early music movement to the performances.
Rossini’s Tancredi was an ideal choice to embark upon the project. Although hardly neglected, performances of the opera are infrequent enough that it retains its novelty status. It was the twenty-year-old Rossini’s first real success, an immediate hit when it premiered in Venice in 1813. Furthermore, it was Rossini who conquered Europe’s musical world and ushered in the forms and dramatic conventions that would govern the genre for the next century.
Nineteenth-century Italian opera played on period instruments is a rarity anywhere, and Crutchfield opines that this may be the first such attempt in the US. The sound that emerged from the pit was indeed beguiling. Modern instruments afford an overall orchestral brilliance that is replaced by the pungent, warmer sound of historical ones, while attacks have more bite and incisiveness.
The violins, viola, cellos and contrabasses were a mix of baroque and modern, all with gut strings. Woodwinds were mostly modern replicas of historical models. The piccolo piercing through the boisterous Act I finale is just one delightful example of the period sounds that are a little raw for our modern ears but so exciting. Several of the instruments were built especially for this festival, including the English Horn played by Kristin Olson, whose extended solos in the second act were mesmerizingly beautiful.
The brass instruments were a mixture of replicas and antiques. Inspecting the pit during the intermission, I marveled at the rows of valveless trumpets of various sizes and numerous bodies of the horns hanging from a music stand. The burnished sound that they emit requires both a perfect embouchure and faultless technique. It’s one of my favorite sounds in a period band, and I was not disappointed here.
Few stones were left unturned in resurrecting the past. The seating plan for the orchestra was based on one from Rossini’s time at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Anchored by the first violin, cembalo and violoncello, the remaining strings and woodwinds face one another in the pit. The other cellos and contrabasses were seated in four different places, and the brass faced each other on either side of the woodwinds. In theory the arrangement should result in a more homogenous musical texture, as well as greater visual contact among the players, eliminating the need for a conductor on a podium. In practice, there were some rough patches when coordination was less than optimal.
This is bel canto opera, however, with the focus on the voice, and Crutchfield’s handpicked cast blossomed in this rarified musical atmosphere. Legato was the name of the game. The female singers in particular impressed with their evenness of tone, fluidity in ornamentation and ease of production. Each roulade and trill was wedded to an emotion or a dramatic impulse; the sounds were never less than lovely. All but banished were the muscular, effortful vocal gymnastics employed by some of the great proponents of this repertoire in the past.
Bravura can take on many guises, and Tamara Mumford in the title role exhibited it through grace and confidence. Her gleaming mezzo-soprano handled the florid passages with ease, especially in Tancredi’s tour de force aria, ‘O patria!…Di tanti palpiti’. Amanda Woodbury has a sumptuous soprano that she employed in grand manner as Amenaide. Rapid runs catapulted skyward, culminating in high notes that emerged as shimmering, soft blooms of sound. The downward descents that followed were equally dazzling.
In a league of his own was Santiago Ballerini as Argirio. You know that combination of sound, emotion, suaveness and looks that scream tenor? Ballerini has it. Whether singing at full volume or sculpting a poignant phrase, his voice never loses its allure. Before Act II, Crutchfield announced that bass-baritone Leo Radosavljevic was suffering from an allergy attack. He soldiered on as Orbazzano, Argirio’s foe in politics and love, but it was obvious that there was more richness and power to the voice than he could muster under the circumstances.
Two other full-voiced mezzo-sopranos filled out the cast in minor roles. As Isaura, a noblewoman sympathetic to Amenaide, Hannah Ludwig had a natural ease on stage that was mirrored in her singing. Stephanie Sanchez as Roggiero had a nice little star turn in her aria, ‘Torni alfin ridente, e bella’, which comes near the end of the opera.
The half-fish/half-foul approach of semi-staged didn’t work; the singers, left to their own dramatic instincts on a bare stage, often floundered. The exceptions, of course, were Ballerini, a born stage animal, and Mumford, whose earnest, stand-and-deliver style served her well. A more coherent approach to the women’s attire and attention to their footwear would have brought a sense of visual unity. Individual female leads exiting the stage should not make more sound then the coming and goings of 16 male chorus members. One such exit elicited giggles from the audience.
Rossini composed new arias for subsequent productions of Tancredi throughout Italy, even writing a tragic ending in keeping with Voltaire’s original play for Ferrara. Crutchfield wrote that these alternative pieces add up to half of the musical score, observing that some might have not been heard in their true operatic context since the early nineteenth century. Rossini’s melodic innovation and dramatic sense intrigued, and of course there was the novelty factor, but clocking in at well over three hours, this Tancredi was a long sit, made more so as the voices of the three principals tired noticeably as the second act progressed.
The other main offering of Teatro Nuovo’s first season, which I was unable to hear, was a true rarity, Giovanni Simone Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, which also premiered in 1813. Rossini was lavish in his praise of Mayr’s music – ‘always dramatic, always sings and is always melodic’. In addition, there were lectures, concerts and a masterclass with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, an ambitious start to the new venture.