Keeping with the goal of their name, which translates to “New Theater,” the opera group Teatro Nuovo will present a semi-staged production of Gioachino Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra” (The Thieving Magpie) on July 14 at Purchase College. The company was created as an ensemble dedicated to classic Italian opera presented in a way that is “so old it’s new,” according to Will Crutchfield, founding artistic and general director. Teatro Nuovo brings classics like “The Thieving Magpie” to life in a way not often seen in modern opera. In this case, it means musicians in the pit play instruments that were used when the opera premiered, and the orchestra is arranged the way it would have been in the 19th century -- facing each other instead of a conductor.
“It’s not one person interpreting the entire opera [this way], it’s players interacting with each other in real time,” said Crutchfield. “These operas were designed more to be a feast of competing personalities than to speak for one personality. That means each singer is the music director of his or her own aria and that’s a very novel thing in the opera world today.”
“The Thieving Magpie” itself was a significant production in the world of opera when it premiered in 1817. It tells the story of a girl who is to be executed for stealing silver for her employer. She is saved last minute by the realization that it was in fact a bird stealing a number of items and hoarding them in its nest. Funny at some points and serious at the others, the piece marked the beginning of an era in opera in which comedy and sincerity, once staunchly separated on stage, began to mesh.
“It was a real turning point for opera because it marks the moment when the comical and serious began to mesh together,” said Crutchfield. “Comedy was a place in opera at the time where you could see the stories of ordinary people: farmers, shop keepers, towns people. The serious operas were about princes, queens and dukes, so what started to happen with opera like this which was called ‘opera semiseria’ or ‘half serious,’ you got these ordinary people who would normally be in comedy but serious stuff starts to happen.”
This production is semi-staged, wherein actors will perform with full drama and expression, but there will be no major scenery or costumes. Soprano Alisa Jordheim, who plays the leading lady Ninetta, said the minimalist visuals allow the focus to shift to the dramatic qualities of the performers and artistry of the music.
“I think [the audience] will find it intriguing because we’re able to let the music sort of takeover and speak for itself, “ said Jordheim. “It’s theatrical. Nuovo itself is a very special program because we have a luxurious amount of time to really spend on a lot of detailed work and on making sure we present the piece that we want in terms of musical elements and character development.”
Similar to practices of the time, co-music director and concertmaster Jakob Lehmann will sit among the rest of the orchestra instead of standing in front of it to lead the players.
“This style and this music is very much about the emotion and drama through the music to the audience,” said Lehmann. “But also the orchestra is partaking in this adventure. Due to the fact that we use period instruments, the audience will get a glimpse on what this music might have sounded like in the time of the composites, which is I think largely different from what we can here today in the opera house. The sound is much more transparent but also extreme in dynamic contrast.”
Opera company Teatro Nuovo is set to demystify the strange with its July performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s “La Straniera” (“The Stranger”), the first production of the show in the New York City area in 20 years.
The opera is notoriously complicated and convoluted in its storytelling — King Philip Augustus (Philip II of France) marries a Danish princess, only to demand an annulment the next day in spite of her claims to the throne. He casts his first wife away and marries another woman, only to have the sitting Pope demand Philip take back his first bride years later. This puts him in a situation of bigamy, which left him vunerable to ex-communcation from the church, before his second wife died shortly later.
The opera focuses on the plight of wife No. 2, Agnes of Merania, also known as Alaide, who is exiled in order to solve the king’s marriage problem. While she is exiled, she lives in isolation, with her brother nearby to keep watch over her, also under an assumed identity. The locals call her “la straniera” or “the stranger,” and fear she is a witch as she lives isolated in the wilderness. Naturally, a betrothed nobleman falls in love with her, mistakes her brother as competition, and Alaide is later accused of murdering said brother. Confusion gives way to violence and chaos and, ultimately, no one still has any idea who anyone else is.
A plot explanation in plain writing is hard enough to follow but, according to artistic and general director Will Crutchfield, none of the background information that would give the audience a clue what is going on is revealed in the show itself -— until “the last four minutes of the show.”
“It’s an opera with a very complicated backstory, things that happen before the curtain even goes up, and I think the reason a lot of people find it a little hard to understand is because they leave this obscure story completely unclarified,” said Crutchfield. “We see the authors themselves have multiple chances to make [the story] clear and they reject them all. When you’re sitting there to interpret it, you read the back story and the source material and then you think about how we’re going to make all that clear to the modern audience.”
Soprano Christine Lyons, who plays Alaide, said the fact that the libretto and music were written closely together makes the music highly informative of the acting choices the singers decide to make in portraying their characters. As she plays an exiled queen who lives by a lake while trying to defy the fate she believes God has thrust upon her, Lyons said the drama, twists, turns and surprises of the show are all laid out by the music.
“You can hear when Alaide is in love, you can hear when she’s had moments of weakness, you can hear when she has moments of defiance, moments of strength and those two things together,” said Lyons. “It’s a cathartic experience in opera.”
Jakob Lehmann, co-music director and concertmaster, said the musicians tackle the challenge of the dramatic music with enthusiasm and vigor.
“We’re going to do this with a lot of energy and with a lot of believing in it,” said Lehmann. “We all stand behind that music so much. We just want to share that with the audience, how much fun we have performing it. We are all at the start of our careers and we are all very passionate about this music and about the style and about the experience that we have here.”
Crutchfield said the group hopes to bring some clarity to an opera long considered a little too confusing to follow. The striking choice of the authors not to let anyone in the audience in on the secret and instead leave them as much in the dark as the characters of the play may have drawn audiences to a mysterious hero but made it hard for anyone to understand what they were watching. Crutchfield hopes their production, twists and turns and all, will help set the record straight.
“It’s basically an opera of people falling in love with each other, getting jealous and no one knows who each other is,” said Crutchfield. “It’s almost dream-like, sometimes like a nightmare sometimes like a dream but no one knows who is who. It shows what can happen when people get stuck in their emotions when they don’t know what’s going on around them.”