Q & A : Will Crutchfield On ‘La Straniera’ & ‘La Gazza Ladra’

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Steven Pisano)

In 2018 the Teatro Nuovo was created to continue the legacy of Bel Canto at Caramoor and to propagate the exploration of neglected Bel canto and Italiana operas.

At the head of the new company is Will Crutchfield, the artistic and general director. A conductor, musicologist, and educator, Crutchfield has been dedicated to exploring and conducting over 30 titles by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi.

This season he continues his dedication to the works of Bellini and Rossini with two rarely performed operas.

In a recent interview, Crutchfield spoke with OperaWire about Bellini’s “La Straniera” and Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra” and why he chose these two works for Teatro Nuovo’s second year.

OperaWire: This year you are presenting “La Straniera” and “La Gazza Ladra,” two very rare works. Why did you decide to pick these pieces as the centerpieces of the festival?

Will Crutchfield: The main reason for picking them is their sheer quality – “La Straniera” is one of the most melodic, expressive operas in any part of the repertory, and “La Gazza Ladra” shows Rossini at the height of his powers, drawing on both his comic and serious sides.

But oddly enough, they have extremely strong connections. Both were written for La Scala at a time when Alessandro Rolla was leading the orchestra there. Both have an innocent heroine put on trial for her life and unwilling to defend herself. And both of them show the steps forward that opera was taking in their respective moments, a dozen years apart.

OW: Bellini and Rossini’s writing are so different yet they are considered from the same era of music. How do you think Rossini’s music informed that of Bellini?

WC: Rossini influenced everybody. He was really the defining genius of 19th-century opera. He took the various threads of 18th-century opera and re-wove them into a truly new fabric based on his personal musicality – above all his sense of structure and proportion.

And he was so successful that by the time Bellini wrote “La Straniera,” about 70 percent of the operas performed in Italy every season were by one composer – Rossini. So naturally, Bellini wrote in Rossini’s forms, like everybody else. But within those forms, his musical ideas and goals were very different, so he started the “next wave.” He influenced composers both inside and outside Italy, including many who had never written for the Italian stage, like Schumann, Chopin, and Wagner.

OW: “La Straniera” was Bellini’s fifth opera. What types of musical innovations does this work have when looking at the full body of Bellini’s work?

WC: The concentration on melody above all. Bellini had the gift of spinning melodies over a much longer stretch of rhythm or of poetry than anybody before him. He can create a longer arch before he needs any element of repetition or sometimes even punctuation. And he was so passionately absorbed in that world of melodiousness that he gives it the main burden of defining the emotions and the drama.

“La Straniera” is in a way his most radical step in this new direction. Compared to other operas of the time, there is very little coloratura and very little recitative – he wanted people to “weep, shudder, and die singing.” That’s a famous line but worth resurrecting because “Straniera” is the opera that prompted him to say it.

OW: What are some of the biggest challenges of this work and do you have any favorite moments in this piece?

WC: The biggest challenge is dramatic. The opera has an extremely complex backstory, and your first instinct is to try to clarify it – and then you realize that time after time, Romani and Bellini had a chance to clarify it but rejected it. The characters don’t really know who each other really are, and neither does the public – and you eventually see that they wanted it this way. They are sort of deracinated whirlwinds of emotion – jealousy, fear, longing, resignation, violence – acting out their primal urges without any of us quite understanding just why. There is a dreamlike quality to this – sometimes nightmarish, sometimes consoling. It is very powerful, and I don’t know any other piece quite like it in that way.

OW: In regards to “La Gazza Ladra,” where do you see this work in the context Rossini’s oeuvre. How does this work stand out?

WC: It stands out as a turning point towards Romanticism. It’s what we call an opera “semi-seria” – half serious. What that means is that the people on stage are the traditional characters of comic opera: farmers, villagers, townspeople, tradespeople, local officials, and so forth – not princes and heroes from history – but serious things happen to them. The heroine is being marched to the gallows when the happy ending finally comes.

This paved the way for tragic operas about non-noble figures – everything from “La Traviata” to “Pagliacci” would have been impossible if “opera semi-seria” had never happened.

OW: The overture to this work is one of the most famous. Why do you think that is and how does Rossini develop upon that with the music that follows in the opera?

WC: Rossini’s overtures have always been beloved because he had a rhythmic verve that has never been surpassed, and a genius for attaching his rhythms to simple, catchy phrases. His melodies are the opposite of Bellini’s – very short, catchy but undeveloped. He doesn’t want to develop them – he wants to set them spinning around on his rhythmic contraption. He brings parts of the overture back in the opera exactly when he wants that kind of rhythmic buildup.

OW: When preparing these works, what editions did you look into and what are the essential elements in presenting a Bel Canto opera?

WC: We are lucky to live in an age when most Bel Canto operas can now be performed from editions that have been carefully based on the composers’ original scores. We have the publisher Ricordi and a couple of recently departed giants, Alberto Zedda and Philip Gossett to thank for this – their students and protégées, by the dozens, are carrying on their work every year all over the world now.

OW: What will audiences discover about Bel Canto in these two works?

WC: They will discover some very new things about performing style. This has been a dream of mine for years – to follow the preparation and performing process that originally went with the operas, so that we can all learn from that process.

We do them without a conductor, which means that everybody has to watch and listen and respond to each other, and everybody’s musicality is invited in to the mix. It puts the singers in the driver’s seat for their own solos, which is where they should be, and it puts enormous responsibility on each and every player to be involved in the whole thing moment by moment.

This is difficult, but it’s both empowering and liberating, and the payoff in expressive energy is enormous. In our debut season last year, we could only hope that this would happen – now we know it can, and we’re excited to be taking it to its own next level and to these fantastic new pieces.


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