Opera fandom is often built around a preoccupation — zealous, territorial, absolute — with distinctive voices. Maria Callas, Renée Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, Luciano Pavarotti — they’re all immediately identifiable by timbre alone. Not coincidentally, all of these singers have been major recording artists.
Teatro Nuovo, the brainchild of the bel canto specialist Will Crutchfield, inverts that value system. It asks: What would happen if all of the singers onstage shared a particular school of singing and even a certain vocal quality?
In semi-staged concerts of Donizetti’s “Poliuto” and Federico and Luigi Ricci’s “Crispino e la Comare” at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center on Wednesday and Thursday, Teatro Nuovo found manifold beauties in a brand of homogeneity that aims to reconstruct bel canto style from historical sources that predate the mid-20th-century revival and its recording stars.
The singers in the two casts largely shared a vocal profile and style — a trim yet colorful sound with a quick, understated vibrato and an emphasis on legato, portamento and unaspirated coloratura. They eschewed abrupt pivots in color and dynamics. And, unconstrained by the need to project over a modern orchestra in a vast hall, they rarely pushed their voices for volume, size or drama, choosing instead an unforced, even emission of sound.
Teatro Nuovo’s ingenious use of projections leveraged historical set designs — the Metropolitan Opera’s 1919 production of “Crispino” and the 1840 premiere of the French version of “Poliuto” — as backdrops for each concert. It was a quick, cost-effective way to add theatrical context.
Donizetti completed “Poliuto” in 1838, having already composed the operas that would make him immortal: “L’Elisir d’Amore,” “Lucia di Lammermoor” and the so-called Tudor trilogy. In its extensive recitatives, unhurried melodic elaboration and dramatic silences you can hear his well-earned confidence. After “Poliuto” riled censors in Naples for its depiction of a Christian martyr, Donizetti refashioned it in French. But the original Italian version gained a hold after his death.
As Poliuto, Santiago Ballerini embodied the virtues of Teatro Nuovo’s house style with a pretty, graciously produced tenor capable of reaching dramatic heights. The baritone Ricardo José Rivera, as his rival Severo, had the evening’s richest instrument — powerful yet capable of softness. As Poliuto’s wife, the soprano Chelsea Lehnea dug into Paolina’s conflicting emotions with a mercurially colored, highly responsive instrument that flew seamlessly through its registers, even if some of her choices felt exaggerated. Hans Tashjian (Callistene), with a somewhat hollow bass, was hard to hear.
If “Poliuto” is a prestige drama by a generational talent, one who was stretching a genre and challenging convention, then “Crispino e la Comare” is a network sitcom by a pair of brothers with a nose for diverting entertainment. Everyday character types — a down-and-out blue-collar cobbler and the smug doctors he outsmarts — are harmlessly yet incisively mocked. The score foregrounds a font of melodies over spare, efficient accompaniments; no one would mistake it for the sparkling sophistication of Rossini or Donizetti, but it has its charms.
In the Riccis’ fantastical satire, a fairy godmother grants the cobbler Crispino the ability to predict whether patients will live or die, turning him into Venice’s top doctor, much to the chagrin of medical professionals. As Crispino’s self-pity — even the chorus tells him to shut up already — morphs into self-regard, he alienates everyone, including his wife, until the fairy teaches him a lesson with a quick trip to the underworld.
Mattia Venni was a sensational Crispino — his handsome baritone and capacity for self-parody allowed him to evolve from the melodramatic sobs of an almost-suicide scene to the complacent patter of success. As Crispino’s wife, the soprano Teresa Castillo sang her spirited, flirty showpieces mellifluously. The mezzo-soprano Liz Culpepper’s fairy godmother, all chesty low notes and wry amusement, felt like an ancestor of Mistress Quickly in Verdi’s “Falstaff.” Dorian McCall, with his rich lows and light snobbery, and Vincent Graña, with his rubber-voiced comedic stylings, cut up as Crispino’s rivals.
Teatro Nuovo’s period-style orchestra astonished again and again. The instruments don’t have the invincible brilliance of their modern counterparts. But something more personal, even intimate, comes across in the woody bassoons, earthy cellos, translucent violins and ravishingly rangy clarinet. Period instruments can be temperamental, but the players didn’t sacrifice tuning or polish.
The orchestra’s almost musky timbre made it a versatile collaborator. In the concertato at the end of Act II of “Poliuto,” it complemented rather than competed with the singers, with transparent textures that allowed the mildly lustrous voices to come through. In “Crispino,” its rough-hewn energy gave it a sincere, good-humored quality.
In the Donizetti, Jakob Lehmann, who both played violin and conducted with his bow, relished accelerating the tempo of concluding allegros and guided the music with such subtlety that even staccatos had shape to them. The maestro al cembalo Jonathan Brandani effectively conducted “Crispino” from the keyboard and let the bass and cello lead in recitatives.
In a few brief seasons, Teatro Nuovo has staked out a singular place for itself by marrying the thrill of discovery with a shared sense of purpose.