Teatro Nuovo’s quest for authenticity triumphs in Donizetti’s Poliuto

United StatesUnited States Donizetti, Poliuto: Soloists, Teatro Nuovo Chorus and Orchestra / Jakob Lehmann (primo violino et direttore dell’opera). Frederick P. Rose Theater, New York, 19.7.2023. (RP)

Santiago Ballerini (Poliuto) © Steve Pisano

Poliuto – Santiago Ballerini
Paolina – Chelsea Lehnea
Severo – Ricardo José Rivera
Callistene – Hans Tashjian
Nearco – Robert Kleinertz
Felice – Krishna Raman
Christians – James Danner, Louise Floyd

Teatro Nuovo’s production of Donizetti’s Poliuto is a bel canto dream come true. The performance adheres to the credo of Will Crutchfield, the company’s artistic director, to perform the bel canto repertoire employing historically informed performances for both voices and period instruments. It was one of two operas in the company’s 2023 season; the other is the Ricci brothers’ comedy Crispino e la Comare (not reviewed), which is a true mid-nineteenth-century rarity.

Donizetti composed this three-act opera to an Italian libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, based on Pierre Corneille’s play Polyeucte. The play and the opera tell the story of Saint Polyeuctus (Poliuto in the opera), the first Christian martyr in Armenia in 259 AD.

Set in Roman-occupied Armenia, the plot centers on the Roman Poliuto and his wife, Paolina, who agreed to wed him after being convinced by her father, Felice, that the man she loved, the Roman general Severo, had been killed in battle. Callistene, a high priest of Jupiter, whom Paolina had rejected as a lover, played a role in the deception.

Paolina is troubled not only by Severo’s return, but also by her husband’s desire to be baptized as a Christian, which means near-certain death. Over his wife’s objections, Poliuto is nonetheless baptized. Upon hearing rumors of a new Christian convert, Callistene threatens to torture Nearco, Poliuto’s friend and fellow Christian, to discover the person’s identity. Rather than permit Nearco to suffer on his behalf, Poliuto reveals himself as the new convert and, in a rage, destroys an altar dedicated to Jupiter.

Poliuto and Nearco are condemned to death, and Paolina visits her husband in his cell. She reveals Callistene’s duplicity in the matter, and they are reconciled. Moved by her husband’s visions of eternal salvation, Paolina asks to be baptized, which he reluctantly does after being convinced that her conversion is genuine. Singing of the joys of eternal life, they join the other Christians in the arena to be torn apart by wild animals.

Poliuto had a somewhat torturous path from inception to its Italian premiere. The opera was intended for Teatro San Carlo in Naples as a vehicle for tenor Adolphe Nourrit, who had achieved great success in works by Rossini and Meyerbeer at the Paris Opera. Neapolitan censors, however, objected to the portrayal of a Christian saint as a jealous lover, and the opera was first staged in Paris in 1840 in its French version, Les Martyrs.

The original Italian version was eventually presented at San Carlo in 1848. By that time, however, Donizetti had died a few months earlier in an insane asylum, and Nourrit had jumped to his death from a hotel window.

Teatro Nuovo’s emphasis is on the music, not on the staging or scenery. With a few tweaks, however, this semi-staged production would have topped many a current opera production on the visual front. This was due to the ingenious use of reproductions of original designs for productions of Les Martyrs by various French designers. The grainy black-and-white drawings effectively created both scene and atmosphere. Incorporating translations in period font into the projections was another touch that added coherency to the performance. Imagination always trumps budget.

One of the chief draws of a Teatro Nuovo performance is the emphasis on the voice, especially in resurrecting the use of distinct vocal registers, period ornamentation and the connection of musical lines by the smooth legato and portamento. Crutchfield is an expert at spotting rising opera singers who have not only the requisite vocal allure, but also the desire to immerse themselves in this quest for authenticity. The cast that he assembled for Poliuto was exceptionally up to the challenge.

Santiago Ballerini’s lyric tenor has the thrust and brilliance to express Poliuto’s quicksilver emotional turns – heroism, romantic ardor, all-consuming jealousy, compassion and religious fervor – with both artistry and passion. Ballerini was equally compelling dramatically with a stoic, commanding presence that befitted both a Roman soldier and a Christian martyr.

Chelsea Lehnea (Paolina) © Steve Pisano

A pale orange, toga-like dress and sparkling wrist jewelry added visual excitement to Chelsea Lehnea’s performance and was equal to the radiance of her singing. The soprano is a no-holds-barred singing actress, whose dramatic involvement is evident in every note that she offers and every movement she makes. Her sensitive, beguiling ornamentation made her singing of Paolina’s arias and cabalettas into revelations of beauty and style.

As Severo, baritone Ricardo José Rivera commanded the stage through his superb voice. He possesses an exceptionally beautiful and robust instrument that provided some of the finest singing of the evening. The eloquence and intensity which he brought to the cabaletta, ’No, l’acciar non fu spietato che versava il sangue mio’, in which Severo expresses bitterness and rage upon learning that Paolina is married, was truly fine singing.

Bass Hans Tashjian was equally effective in depicting the vile Callistene, the mastermind behind the tragedy that ensnared Paolina, Poliuto and Severo. As Nearco, tenor Robert Kleinertz displayed a fine tenor that makes him a rising singer to put on the watch list for future outings.

In keeping with period sensibilities, Teatro Nuovo dispenses with a conductor and employs a ‘Primo violino et direttore’ to lead the orchestra and set the tempi. Jakob Lehmann performed these duties expertly, in a performance that was as aurally arresting as it was dramatically exciting. There is no pit in the Rose Theater, and the orchestra is practically on the same level as the singers, but balance was never an issue.

One of the most musically satisfying scenes came in the Act III finale with Lehmann’s harnessing of soloists, chorus and orchestra to create a complex musical depiction of conflicting emotions. The ensemble functions musically and dramatically much as does the Sextet in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and this performance made one wonder why it is not as equally famous.

Rick Perdian

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