|Alisa Jordheim and Erik van Heyningen in Rossini's La Gazza Ladra|
(Photo by Steven Pisano)
All it took to convert a cranky critic (thanks to insufferable heat and the MTA) into a smiling audience member was the overture to Rossini's opera semiseria La Gazza Ladra, so charmingly played by the conductorless Teatro Nuovo Orchestra. Beginning with an astonishing roll of the drums, the sparkling melodies tumbled out helter-skelter in an amazing variety of rhythms, time signatures, and tempi. The march let us know that someone was coming home from the army. The profusion of melody that followed made us wish that some of them could be lent to today's composers who seem unable to produce a single one of their own!
We were tickled to meet the titular character played by one Christopher Hochstuhl--a handsome bird indeed, dressed in a black cape with feathered collar, representing the thieving magpie himself. We have noticed this bird on various ski trips due to its vivid black and white markings but we never knew that it is known for its intelligence and is the only non-mammal that can recognize itself in the mirror. But we digress.
We begin in the home of the Vingradito family. Pippo is organizing a welcome party for young Giannetto who is returning from military service. Especially excited is the servant Ninetta who is in love with him. His father Fabrizio is perfectly happy with the match but his mother Lucia is not.
In the pants role of Pippo, a family friend, we heard mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig who impressed us with the rich texture of her voice and her lively warm stage presence, not only in the opening scene but throughout the opera when she provides loving support for Ninetta.
Soprano Alisa Jordheim, who delighted us in the role of Serpetta in On Site Opera's production of Mozart's La Finta Gardiniera, impressed us again last night with her brilliant focused instrument, equally well deployed in the lyrical cavatina and in the coloratura passages of the cabaletta. She has a winning stage presence that makes you want to see her happy.
Baritone Rob McGinness sang well and was convincing as Fabrizio. His wife Lucia was brilliantly portrayed by mezzo-soprano Allison Gish, whom we have often reviewed in her work with New Camerata Opera, Cantanti Project, Dell'Arte Opera, and ARE Opera (now City Lyric Opera). We are not surprised that this excellent young singer is cast a lot; her voice is richly textured and her acting thoroughly convincing. We loved the change in vocal color at the end when she begins to care for her future daughter-in-law.
Tenor Oliver Sewell had the part of Giannetto, singing and acting with conviction. Each time we have reviewed him we have had the same thought. How much better he would sound if he stopped trying so hard. Even when the orchestra was silent he seemed to push for unnecessary volume, depriving his upper register of the spin and ping we'd like to hear. The promise is there but the work needs to be done to kick his performance up to a "10".
The plot is set into motion by the arrival of Ninetta's father Fernando, superbly sung by bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen. Mr. Heyningen has been on our radar since his apprenticeship at Santa Fe Opera. We think he has a great deal to offer! Fernando has deserted the army after an unfortunate incident with a superior officer. He needs money with which to flee his fate and asks his daughter to sell some silver and leave the proceeds for him in a secret place. His initials on the silver are the same as those of Ninetta's boss and when Lucia notices some missing silver she accuses Ninetta of theft.
Ninetta has sold her father's silver to the peddler Isacco, well portrayed by tenor Spencer Viator, whose performance as Count Belfiore (in the same production in which we heard Ms. Jordheim) was recently reviewed. Isacco cannot come to Ninetta's defense because he has already sold the silver. Ninetta cannot defend herself without implicating her father; she remains silent.
There is an evil Podestà who has been trying for some time to win Ninetta's affection; his importuning has only alienated her. At this point he decides to press his advantage and get her to submit. Another #metoo moment! The role was well portrayed by bass Hans Tashjian whom we have also reviewed a number of times. We seem to like him more and more with each performance. Of course, he always plays "the heavy" but such is the fate of basses.
Fernando risks his own life to come and support his daughter and things look pretty bad for both of them. Ninetta is convicted of theft and led to the gallows, accompanied by a funeral march that surely inspired Chopin, who was a big fan of Rossini (as are we).
Fortunately, the missing silver is discovered in the magpie's nest and Fernando has been pardoned by the King. Lucia now accepts her daughter-in-law to be, everyone is happy except for the Podestà, left to stew in his own remorse.
Aside from gorgeous arias (Ninetta and Giannetto each have a sweet cavatina) there are a number of stunning duets, not only between the lovers but between father and daughter. There was a trio in Act I involving Ninetta, Fernando, and Il Podestà in which the harmonies were so exquisite we got a bit teary-eyed. Father would risk his own life to save his daughter's honor!
Ninetta's prayer in Act II was another highlight, as was the septet at the end of Act I in which everyone is confused, just like in Rossini's comedies. It is no secret that Rossini stole from himself and all through the opera one can hear melodies from his other operas. Do we mind this? Absolutely not.
The only thing we minded, come to think of it, was the overly long scene in Act II which was so repetitive that we would have cut it by half at least. And one other cavil which also troubled us the previous night. The font of the surtitles made the words more difficult to read than they needed to be.
We sat on the other side of the theater than we had the prior night and got a better look at the arrangement of the orchestra, how they related to one another, and how maestro al cembalo Rachelle Jonck conducted. There was an exquisite solo on the baroque flute with some competition from the baroque oboe, both wooden and soft in tone.
Teatro Nuovo's second year has exceeded our expectations and we support Will Crutchfield's effort to restore bel canto opera to its original form. Count us fans!
(c) meche kroop