We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, July 21, 2023


 Mattia Venni and Teresa Castillo
(Photo by Steve Pisano)

Last night we reviewed Teatro Nuovo's presentation of Donizetti's tragedy Poliuto; this was well matched with a sparkling comedy by I Fratelli Ricci (Federico and Luigi) entitled Crispino e la Comare with a libretto written by fellow Venetian Francesco Maria Piave. Who would have suspected that the librettist of such serious works as Ernani, Attila, Rigoletto, La traviata, and Simon Boccanegra would show himself to be a master of crowd pleasing comedy.

In another informative pre-opera lecture by Will Crutchfield, General and Artistic Director of Teatro Nuovo, we learned why multitudes of charming Italian comedies, so popular in their time, have become nearly lost. In the second half of the 19th c. Giuseppi Verdi's operas filled the major opera houses.  Meanwhile, a legion of presently unknown composers delighted their public in the smaller houses with frothy works featuring silly plots and gorgeous Bel Canto music.  In our imagination we see throngs of locals, seeking an entertaining evening, flocking to these venues for a hearty laugh and a head full of tunes on their way home. During the performance we allowed ourself the same pleasures.

The story concerns an impoverished cobbler who, through the good graces of a fairy godmother, becomes an important physician who enrages the local physicians who have failed to achieve such miraculous cures. Piave must have had a grand time skewering that profession in much the same way as Saturday Night Live and South Park satirize some of our present day institutions, and as Gilbert and Sullivan did across the pond in their own time.

The music, replete with waltzes, sparkles with wit and good nature. As was the custom of the time, the superb Teatro Nuovo Orchestra was led from the harpsichord by Jonathan Brandani, listed on the program as Maestro al cembalo e direttore. As we observed last night, there was no formal conductor standing on a podium and instrumentalists were arranged as they were in the 19th c.  Musical values were admirable all around; since this is opera let us spill some ink on the subject of the singers.

One could not have asked for a better Crispino than bass-baritone Mattia Venni whose comedic chops were matched by some superb singing. Whether legato or staccato, whether solo or in duet or trio, his sturdy but flexible vocal production was a standout. Rapid patter presented no problems. We would welcome the opportunity to hear him again.

As Annetta, his wife, we heard the splendid soprano Teresa Castillo about whom we have been writing for ten years. We first heard her as Drusilla at the Manhattan Summer Voice Festival's production of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea. And then we watched her star on the rise as she appeared thrice with Career Bridges, at galas given by Opera Index and The George London Foundation for their competition winners, with Opera Lafayette, and singing "Carceleras" from Chapi's zarzuela Las Hijas de Zebedeo.  What we most admire about Ms. Castillo is her versatility. Many singers enter competitions and always sing the same aria but this artist always presents us with a new aspect of her vocal gifts.

Mezzo-soprano Liz Culpepper made a most affecting "comare" and is just the kind of fairy godmother one would want. She colored her magnificent mezzo with benevolence. When Crispino got too full of himself (as did Annetta), she found just the right way of teaching him a lesson.

Scott Hetz Clark was too young and handsome to play the unpleasant and miserly Don Asdrubale but was convincing in his heart attack scene, conveniently liberating his ward, the wealthy orphan Lisetta (Abigail Lysinger) who was wasting away for want of love for her suitor Contino del Fiore (Toby Bradford).  Dear Reader, we are sure that you noticed the commedia del'arte roots of 19th c. Italian comedy!

The avaricious doctors were played by Dorian McCall and Vincent Graña who participated in one of the most delightful trios ever heard. The stonemason "cured" by Dr. Crispino who treated him with salame and vino was played by Jeremy Luis Lopez.

The revelations of the past two evenings spent with Teatro Nuovo have left us hungry for more. We hope they will uncover more gems of that epoch and give them the audience they deserve. If you were present at The Rose Theater you would have seen it filled to capacity and you would have heard thunderous applause.

© meche kroop

Thursday, July 20, 2023


     Ricardo José Rivera and Chelsea Lehnea
(photo by Steve Pisano)

We cannot name a better educator in the field of opera than Will Crutchfield, General and Artistic Director of Teatro Nuovo. For many years we traveled up to Caramoor to enjoy his yearly entries into their summer music festival and lately we have come to enjoy his productions right here in New York City at The Rose Theater. His passion for Bel Canto opera fuels our own and his pre-opera lectures always contribute to our appreciation of the work to come. His expertise on Donizetti's advancements in the field of opera opened our ears to new listening discoveries.

We will report on tomorrow's production as well but we are too excited about last night's performance of Donizetti's Poliuto to hold our opinions inside. Performed without benefit of costumes and sets, the production went way beyond "concert style". We were not overwhelmed with meaningless and distracting projections; rather we saw each act accompanied by an upstage drawing of the respective settings , surmounted by translation of the libretto. The artists acted with conviction and the story was well told.

In an avalanche of casting glories we thrilled to the unique vocal timbre of soprano Chelsea Lehnea whose voice impressed us greatly at the Premiere Opera Competition earlier this year. She not only captured the emotional conflict of Paolina, a woman loyal to Poliuto (the man she wed after the reported demise of Severo, the man she truly loved), but also the pain of rejecting the latter after he finally reappears, alive and well. Her stunning technique was put into service to make dramatic points. Who could fail to notice the upward leaps followed by descending portamenti! Also well captured was the spiritual uplift of her decision to join Poliuto in Christian martyrdom.

As the eponymous hero, we heard tenorrific Argentinian Santiago Ballerini whose beautiful and unforced tenor added at least a foot to his physical stature. There is a special thrill to the tenor fach which can be destroyed in an instant by a tight throat in the upper register.  Mr. Ballerini suffers no such impediment and allows the listener to bask in his warm tone, even when singing at the top of the register at maximum volume. (We are congratulating ourself for predicting his success when we reviewed him 6 years ago.)

The role of the long lost lover Severo was effectively performed by Puerto Rican baritone Ricardo José Rivera with the artistry to match that of Ms.Lehnea and Mr. Ballerini. He was so persuasive in his Act II courting of Paulina we could only think of how difficult it must have been for her to hold him off. As in many operas of the 19th c., romance is often foregone out of a sense of duty.

In this case, the story came from a 17th c. play by Pierre Corneille based on the martyrdom of St. Polyeuktos in the early Christian Era, adapted into a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano with input from the intended star. Sadly he never got to sing the role since problems with censorship delayed the premiere until 1848, by which time Donizetti had tragically died and the famous tenor had equally tragically jumped to his death.  Now there's a plot for an opera!!!!

The censorship was caused by the Neapolitan censor's unwillingness to depict a Christian martyr as a jealous husband. Actually, the Christian conversion theme is the framework on which this romantic triangle plays out. Poliuto converts and,in solidarity, so does Paulina and both get thrown to the lions, a scene which the audience is fortunately spared. However it does give Poliuto and Paulina an opportunity to color their voices differentially.

The role of Nearco, the one who leads Poliuto to his conversion, was well sung by Robert Kleinertz, and we heard Krishna Roman in the role of Felice, Paulina's father. Jupiter's High Priest Callistene was portrayed by the imposing bass Hans Tashjian who successfully portrayed the vengeful rage of one whose religion has been scorned in favor of another one. With the full orchestra, his tone was often lost and when the orchestra was silent he sounded somewhat gravelly.

Speaking of the orchestra, we appreciated the many changes instituted by Teatro Nuova to respect the performing traditions of the period. Musicians were seated at audience level and instrumentalists were rearranged according to early 19th c. performing tradition. Most noticeably was the Concert Master--Jakob Lehmann-- leading the orchestra in place of a conductor on a podium. We thought he did a splendid job and we enjoyed the separation of the double basses for a delightful. effect in which they often served as percussion might have. The softer sound of gut strings and wooden wind instruments pleased the ear. We particularly enjoyed the woodwinds.

Special kudos to the members of the chorus who at various times portrayed Roman warriors and Armenian citizens willing to be cajoled into bloodthirsty cries for sacrifice.

We invite (urge) you Dear Reader, to enter "Poliuto" in the search bar if you would care to read about a production by Amore Opera from seven years ago which we reviewed.  We never thought we'd have a chance to hear those gorgeous melodies again and we are grateful to Teatro Nuovo for giving us the opportunity.
Their mission is a unique one--continual ongoing discovery and implementation of historically valid elements of Italian opera of the Bel Canto period.

Look for another review tomorrow!

© meche kroop