The international Bel Canto revival that began in the fifties and brought dozens of long-forgotten operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti back to life largely passed New York by, mainly as a result of a no-interest policy on the part of the Metropolitan. Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland, and other legendary bel canto divas of the day sang their most spectacular star vehicles elsewhere. Those heady days of discovery are over, but many of the operas that resurfaced remain of interest, and Will Crutchfield feels that it is high time we caught up with them. To see that we do, the conductor has set up shop at the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, where he now oversees a forum in bel canto designed to train singers in the style and bring some of these works to our attention.
This summer’s major event was a semi-staged performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, one of the composer’s most popular operas a century ago and back in favor once again. The plot, based on Victor Hugo’s play, puts on Oedipal spin on the famous poisoner: She encounters her estranged illegitimate son and a fatal attraction springs up between them, one that inevitably ends in tragedy. The tensions of this explosive relationship are craftily exploited by both composer and librettist (Felice Romani), and Lucrezia Borgia is one of Donizetti’s tautest, most theatrically effective scores. Verdi learned from every page, enlarging on the older master’s work but not necessarily surpassing it.
Crutchfield achieved a small miracle with both his cast and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s by putting Donizetti into a perspective that few conductors ever succeed in doing. Some stress the music’s forward-looking rhythmic and structural innovations by aggressively overemphasizing them; others take an opposite tack by playing up the opera’s debts to Rossinian classicism, draining the score of its vitality in the process. Here everything was ideally proportioned and urgently communicated, allowing Donizetti’s own singular musical character to register. The singers had clearly been selected with care. Bruce Fowler’s lovely lyric tenor has just enough slancio to put an edge on Gennaro’s predicament, Hao Jiang Tian gave a vibrant account of the vengeful Alfonso’s music, and Vivica Genaux tossed off Orsini’s roulades with saucy ease. If Melanie Helton lacked the vocal presence and theatrical grandeur to be a truly memorable Lucrezia, her performance was nothing if not stylish and earnest.