Nicholas Simpson, Hannah Ludwig and Simone McIntosh
Jakob Lehmann and Lucy Tucker Yates
(photos by Steve Pisano)
An excellent evening comprises, entertainment, education, and enlightenment. That's a lot of alliteration! We have spent many evenings enjoying opera and have watched them evaporate from our consciousness by the next day. So many operas seem to be churned out like sausages. Well, how about an opera that involved probably a year of preparation to be seen only once? Should we consider that a rare privilege to have seen and heard it or a tragedy that it may never be repeated?
Teatro Nuovo, helmed by Will Crutchfield, is the only opera company in the world dedicated to historically informed performance of Italian music from the Bel Canto period (our favorite). What this means might have been gleaned by visual observation and a refined ear. In this case, it was described in the program and, even better, illuminated in a pre-opera lecture for which "standing room only" seemed a small price to pay.
As well as being Artistic Director, Maestro.Crutchfield is an exemplary lecturer, illustrating his points at the piano. We feel that what we learned about Gioachino Rossini, composer of the opera we were about to see, Maometto Secondo, added enormously to our fund of knowledge and appreciation. Let us give but one small example that tickled us. As complex as Rossini's music sounds, he made use of the same chord progression as is used in rock and roll! Once Mo. Crutchfield illustrated this on the piano we were astonished. It is his unique rhythmic variations that make Rossini's music sound complex, along with the decorations of the vocal line which (news to us!) were copied by the master from the singers themselves. We could go on and on but less us get to the experience itself.
Upon arriving at the Rose Theater, the first thing we noticed was that the orchestra was on the same level as the audience. Then we noticed the double basses which were split up, two to each side, and raised a bit above the rest of the orchestra. There was no conductor at the podium. As was the custom in that period, all the musicians could see each other and were led by the primo violino (in this case the marvelous Jakob Lehmann). Equally prominent was Lucy Tucker Yates, maestro al cembalo (harpsichord).
We soon noticed the beauty (visual and aural) of the instruments. The woodwinds were wood and the brass had no valves. And what was that exotic instrument in the brass section? Unlike any instrument we had seen heretofore, it is called the serpentone and its player Barry Bocaner allowed us a closer look during intermission.
In this performance we experienced the orchestra as a character in the story, not just a support for the singers. The clarinet, played by Thomas Carroll, was given some memorable melodies woven through the texture of the music. Instead of feeling swept away by an ocean of music, we felt drawn into a fascinating fabric of harmonious threads.
The libretto by Cesare della Valle told the simple story well. The 15th c.Venetians were defending their territory from attack by the armies of Sultan Mehmed II; the romance of the opera was added on, as dictated by convention. The daughter of the Venetian Governor Paolo Erisso had fallen in love with the Sultan who had previously wooed her under false pretenses. She cannot forgive his deceit; this will not end happily.
The glorious music held our interest throughout. There were only a couple pauses for applause since the music was continuous, rather than being presented as separate numbers. One could say that Rossini's late style had an influence on Richard Wagner. Another unusual convention presented itself. This was the first time we witnessed an onstage band (including a snare drum and a bass drum) except for the Act I serenade in Rossini's Il barbieri di Siviglia.
By this time, dear reader, you must be wondering about the voices. Whoever cast the roles made some fine choices. Rossini wrote the part of the daughter Anna and the part of Calbo (the loyal general chosen by Erisso to marry and defend Anna) within the same range. Here, both roles were given to mezzo-sopranos. One could not imagine two more different voices--each beautiful in its own way, giving duets a special quality. Simone McIntosh possesses a crystalline tone in her upper extension and Hanna Ludwig has a depth and breadth of tone that borders on contralto. Not only did they make incredible music together but Ms. McIntosh had a duet with the harp, played by Chelsea Lane, that was as remarkable as Lucia's duet with the glass harmonica.
Nicholas Simpson's tenor was strong but unforced, musical in its phrasing; his very tall appearance added to the illusion that Anna was his child. As Maometto the conqueror, baritone Scott Purcell was suitably arrogant and vindictive; his voice had the interesting texture of corduroy.
If we have nothing further to say about the voices, it is for want of space. Let us just say that the singing was flawless on all counts and perfectly suited to the bel canto style with all its flourishes and fioritura.
Even the smaller roles were well sung. Tenor Spencer Lawrence Boyd stepped out of the chorus to play Selimo and tenor Toby Bradford stepped out to sing Condulmiero. The chorus was excellent as well. There were a dozen women onstage together but unstaged, and a dozen men also unstaged.
Speaking of which, let us note that the principals did act in a believable fashion, although there were no costumes (just evening dress) and no props. The projected backdrops were drawings of scenes of palaces piazza, and pavilion. Nothing moved. Nothing distracted from the music. We don't have enough space to mention all the excellent chorus members (Mo. Crutchfield also serves as chorus master) and all the musical soloists whose lines interwove with the singers. Let's just say it was a memorable evening all around.
© meche kroop