Teatro Nuovo at Lincoln Center – Crispino e la Comare

Federico & Luigi Ricci
Crispino e la Comare  – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, based on Salvatore Fabbrichesi’s comedy, Il medico et la morte  [sung in Italian with English supertitles]

Crispino – Mattia Venni
Annetta – Teresa Castillo
La Comare – Liz Culpepper
Fabrizio – Dorian McCall
Contino del Fiore – Toby Bradford
Mirabolano – Vincent Graña
Don Asdrubale di Caparotta – Scott Hetz Clark
Bortolo – Jeremy Luis Lopez
Lisetta – Abigail Lysinger

Teatro Nuovo Chorus & Orchestra
Jonathan Brandani

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 20 July, 2023
Venue: Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City

Dating from 1850, Crispino e la Comare (Crispino and the Fairy), a whimsical satire and the final opera composed by the Ricci brothers, soon became wildly popular in Italy and was also appreciated in numerous places worldwide. Though rarely staged in the twentieth-century, the short-lived (1906-1910) Manhattan Opera Company presented the work in 1909 and the Metropolitan Opera mounted four performances in 1919. More recently it was staged at the 2013 Festival della Valle d’Itria in Martina Franca, Italy.

A traditional opera buffa with a delicate dose of angst, its story centers on Crispino, an illiterate Venetian cobbler drowning in debt who, with the help of a Fairy Godmother, becomes a rich physician. When he becomes too full of himself and calls the fairy a witch, she drags him down to the underworld to witness his own funeral. Chastened and mindful that his wealth has led him astray, he is allowed to return to the world above, and all ends in celebration. 

Maestro al cembalo Jonathan Brandini effectively conducts the period-instrument orchestra from the keyboard (as was the convention in Italy during the composers’ time) but lets the bass and cello lead the continuo employed in the recitatives. Though not as brilliant as their modern counterparts, the wooden flutes and bassoons, earthy cellos, translucent strings, and wide-ranging clarinets provide remarkable transparency and rhythmic punch.

Teatro Nuovo’s semi-staged production makes ingenious use of projections of original designs by Adam Thompson based on surviving photographs of the sets by Pieretto Bianco for the 1919 Metropolitan Opera production of Crispino e la Comare as backdrops. Along with simple modern-day costumes and minimal props (a chair here, a table there), they enhance the theatrical context without detracting from the music. 

Teatro Nuovo has assembled a fine cast, and all the singers share a similar style – a clean and colorful sound with a rapid, understated vibrato and a stress on legato, portamento, and unaspirated coloratura. Heading the list is Mattia Venni. With his attractive baritone, he sweeps the scale for self-mimicry; one could not hope for a better Crispino. Another scene stealer is Liz Culpepper as the Fairy Godmother. With her rich mezzo, and wry comic style, she makes a particularly striking stage presence. But it is Teresa Castillo, wonderfully animated and flirtatious as the carpenter’s wife, Annetta, who gets the best music. The finest of her coloratura showpieces is her fluidly delivered Act Two ‘Io non sono più l’Annetta’ (a favorite encore of Joan Sutherland), in which she contemplates her husband’s newly found wealth. As was the custom for divas in comic operas of late 1830s to 1890s, she sings an inserted waltz as a cabaletta finale; in this case an especially vibrant rendition of Luigi Venzano’s ‘Grande Valzer’ (a favorite choice of Luisa Tretrazzini who debuted as Annetta in Buenos Aires in the early 1890s).

The other roles are also well cast. As the lover-boy, Contino di Fiore, Toby Bradford’s clear, strong tenor is appropriately ardent in his Act One ‘Bella sicomme un angelo’. Dorian McCall and Vincent Graña are the perfect cutups as Crispino’s rivals, the snobbish and greedy Venetian doctors, Fabrizio and Miabolano. Studio artists Jeremy Luis Lopez as the stonemason and Abigail Lysinger as the count’s object of affection, Lysette, make important contributions, as does Scott Hetz Clark as the astoundingly titled Don Asdrubale di Caparotte, Crispino’s miserly Sicilian landlord,  

The opera’s charming score stresses lilting melodies over spare but adequate accompaniments, all delivered with subdued, revelatory style. Performed by an orchestra and singers with exceptional vocal and comedic skills, this historically informed production of an opera buffa rarity offers manifold pleasures.

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