Bel Canto at Caramoor 2016

Rare early Rossini and heroic Beethoven at Caramoor’s 2016 Bel Canto season


Opera is alive and well at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts again this summer. This season we have Rossini’s unfamiliar, but in some respects very familiar Aureliano in Palmira and Beethoven’s mighty good over evil opera Fidelio.

OperaMetro caught up with Will Crutchfield, Director of Opera, whose Bel Canto at Caramoor program has brought us countless operatic wonders, most decidedly rare, but then some reasonably familiar, each with a newfound elegance and a plethora of insights. The back and forth of this interview was conducted via email but formatted as if we were doing the Q & A overlooking the lush gardens of Caramoor, mists ascending from the fields before the heat of the afternoon sun.

OperaMetro (OM): Top of the morning to you Will.

Will Crutchfield (WC): Cheers.

Will Crutchfield conducts opera for Bel Canto at Caramoor in the Venetian Theatre

Will Crutchfield conducts opera for Bel Canto at Caramoor in the Venetian Theatre

OM: Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira is one of his early operas which, I confess, sadly, I’ve never heard before. It’s not one of Rossini’s Neapolitan opera serie, a style we’ve grown to know better over the decades, but rather written for Milan. But Herbert Weinstock, in his biography Rossini (1968), gives it about a half a page and reports it was poorly received, perhaps due to the singers. Bad initial press notwithstanding, what is special about this one?

WC: The main thing to realize about Aureliano in Palmira is that all that lukewarm press was based on a very simplified version of the opera that went into circulation after the premiere. There's no question that Aureliano got off to a bad start - they went through three different tenors and the rehearsals were obviously in a state of emergency. And Rossini made the judgment call to re-use some of the music in other operas and move on.  However, this has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the opera he had actually written.

OM: But re-using music was not unheard of in those days, especially in Rossini’s case. I’m told that he subsequently borrowed parts of the overture to Aureliano in Palmira, which opened the La Scala season on December 26, 1813, for his Elisabetta Regina d’Ingleterra, which premiered in Naples in October, 1815, and then, less than six months later, he again used the overture and even bits and pieces for Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which premiered in Rome the following February. How much of Aureliano’s overture will we recognize knowing Barbiere?

WC: You'll recognize all of it! It is exactly the same overture, unchanged for Barbiere. The difference is that both parts of the overture actually return in the course of Aureliano - the allegro as part of the first-act finale, and the slow introduction as a prelude to Arsace's magnificent scene in the countryside after he escapes from prison. So the piece is truly an integral-and-integrated part of Aureliano, not of Barbiere. There are a few other tunes in that got re-used, or paraphrased, in other operas, but not whole pieces.  

OM: Guess I have heard some of it before! But Rossini’s Aureliano has recently had a rebirth of sorts.

WC: At the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2014, we put on the real score of the opera for the first time since La Scala two hundred years earlier. Nobody realized that it existed until we compared all surviving manuscripts of Aureliano to make the new critical edition for Ricordi. And even that first sketchy Scala production had to leave out one of the most exciting duets, probably because of the tenor problems. When our Pesaro DVD* came out, Aureliano won first place for "Best Rediscovered Work" at the International Opera Awards for 2015.  

What you realize when you hear the whole thing is that this is the bridge between the inspired purity of early operas like Tancredi and the rich complexity of those Neapolitan operas, and the Parisian ones that followed. There is fantastically rich, extensive, gorgeous writing for chorus and orchestra. I'd say it's the opera in which Rossini first discovered the power of the chorus, which becomes something decisive for Romantic Italian opera. And it has all the variety and intricacy of vocal writing that we know from scores like La donna del lago and Semiramide. So I would call it a masterpiece, period.

It's also just a bit subversive. The outward plot has a very 18th-century feel: a Roman conqueror who is tempted to deal harshly with his opponents, but decides on noble clemency.

OM: Like Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

WC: Right. Within that, though, Rossini and his young librettist (Felice Romani, who went on to write Norma, La sonnambula, Anna Bolena, L'elisir d'amore and so many others) pull a shift of interest. They create a romantic love story. The emotional center of the opera is two people who start out thinking "victory, victory, victory," and end up not achieving victory, but finding true love. That becomes the central theme for a century's worth of operas: the need to love and be loved surpasses all others.

Georgia Jarman is Zenobia in  Aureliano in Palmira ; Marzelline in  Fidelio

Georgia Jarman is Zenobia in Aureliano in Palmira; Marzelline in Fidelio

OM: What roles pose the greatest challenges, and whom, among your singers, should we listen for?

WC: Two of the principal singers are known to Caramoor's public. One is Georgia Jarman, who got her start here and is now heard all over the world, from Covent Garden to Santa Fe, and who is a truly great Bel Canto singer. The other is Tamara Mumford, who is a rising star at the Met and who did a spectacular Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia for us two years ago. The third is an extremely exciting tenor, Andrew Owens. He combines all the coloratura virtuosity needed for Rossini with the beautiful, ringing sound and expansive top notes of a tenor you would like to hear in La bohème or Rigoletto. That is something rare and much-needed, so we are really looking forward to his Aureliano.

Tamara Mumford is Arsace in  Aureliano in Palmira

Tamara Mumford is Arsace in Aureliano in Palmira

Andrew Owens is Aureliano in  Aureliano in Palmira

Andrew Owens is Aureliano in Aureliano in Palmira

OM: We look forward to this. And I’m on that Pesaro DVD, trust me!

Shifting gears here, since Fidelio is to some extent a departure from what one would call ‘bel canto,’ so why Fidelio here, apart from the fact that it is a great opera and you want to do it?

WC: Actually not so much of a departure, I'd say. Dialogues of the Carmelites last year was a real departure.  But in 1804, when Beethoven wrote the first version, and 1814, when the final version came out, everybody was experimenting with a mixture of 18th-century ingredients, most of them Italian, to figure out what 19th-century opera was going to be like. Rossini would become the defining model for Italy, but that had not happened yet. And Beethoven and Rossini in 1814 have a lot more in common than either one has with, say, Richard Strauss or Puccini.

OM: Fidelio is known as a Rescue-Opera, its most famous predecessor being Cherubini’s Les deux journées to a Bouilly libretto. But for that matter Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) is a rescue opera, albeit well mannered; certainly Grétry’s Richard, Coeur-de-lion from 1784 is about a noble rescue, he’s the King of England for goodness sake! And the operas even earlier based on Ariosto or Tasso are chock full of rescues…not to mention the Orfeo operas, unsuccessful as that rescue was. So why does Fidelio get the big R in Rescue as opposed to a small r? Don’t people do their homework anymore? Is it just because it comes after the French Revolution, the others earlier forgotten due to some collective short-term memory deficit? Or are there musico-dramatic aspects of Fidelio to elevate it above these others?

WC: I think what elevates Fidelio is the inspired content of Beethoven's music, plain and simple. As a libretto it is not even particularly good, at least not by the standards we would later apply. Why is Florestan in prison? What had he tried to do? What were his ideals? We have no idea, and that keeps him somewhat one-dimensional compared to the Marquis of Posa in Don Carlos, for instance.  But it doesn't matter - the dimension Beethoven can add is the depth of his conviction, the depth of his suffering, the depth of his love for the wife who is searching for him. By that I mean: Beethoven gives Florestan music that leads us into receptivity, surprises us enough to make it a bit of a struggle, and ultimately satisfies us - and when we hear music that affects us to that degree, we give our belief to the dramatic character. 

As for the genre of the rescue-opera - it does have a certain built-in quality that's exciting in the theater: we know the desired outcome, we see it striven for but we see its attainment threatened, we are in suspense as to how the situation will be saved, and we feel a burst of happy energy when that happens. The stronger the composer's musical ability to portray the tension and danger, the bigger the burst. That scheme is also really useful to a project that Beethoven, among others, was undertaking:  how to make a large-scale musical work feel like an organic whole, not a collection of individual pieces. Beethoven was re-balancing interest towards the ending. That's what he does in symphonies, where the finale feels like a culmination. There are great symphonies of Haydn that could conceivably trade minuets with each other, but you could never do that in Beethoven because he's finding the way to make each movement belong to something bigger than any of them.

Elza van der Heever is Leonore in Beethoven's  Fidelio

Elza van der Heever is Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio

OM: The role of Leonore was a career making role for many mezzos/sopranos in the 19th century, even today I suppose. Are there specific vocal challenges that make the role an Everest to ascent or are there more dramatic challenges, or both?

WC: Both. Leonore needs a dramatic through-line of unusual clarity and force. It's very easy to understand it, but harder to project it with the radiant moment-to-moment strength that makes an audience believe. You have to love Leonore, the way Beethoven clearly loved this make-believe ideal of perfect self-sacrifice and courage.  On the practical side, she has to have a voice of genuine power and beauty to match her spiritual qualities, yet also the finesse and agility to surmount a good deal of frankly awkward vocal writing, and never let the audience become distracted by that. If you feel the awkwardness is winning, you lose the dramatic focus.

OM: Special singers here?

WC: Our Leonore, Elza van den Heever, has a real chance of living up to the description just given.

OM: On another note, back to your point that “everybody was experimenting with a mixture of 18th-century ingredients” at the time of Beethoven’s Fidelio, what with the revival these days of operas, orchestras, and singers in the here loosely defined pre-1800 style, are there any adjustments you’ll be making to have your Fidelio sound more like it might have sounded originally in 1814? In what ways would this be informative to modern ears?

WC: First of all I should clarify that this isn't going to be my Fidelio - we've invited Pablo Heras-Casado, the new principal conductor of St. Luke's, to make his Caramoor opera debut (and, I believe, to conduct his first Fidelio ever).  But your question still applies, because Pablo has experience in the early-music movement, and experience with Bel Canto as well. He's part of the generation that is assimilating what the late-20th-century "Early Music" people taught us, and breaking down the barriers between that and what we called "mainstream" classical music.  Exactly how he'll apply this to Fidelio, though, we have to wait and see. One thing is that he did ask us to cast it more in relation to the heroic Mozart operas and less in relation to Wagner.  That's not a hard-and-fast division, of course, but it does say something about fleetness and transparency, and I expect we'll hear those qualities as we've already heard them in his Beethoven symphonies with St. Luke's.

OM: My first encounter with Elza van den Heever was in the Met’s new production of Maria Stuarda. She’s at home in Donizetti certainly and was quite arresting on stage.

Thank you, my friend, for talking with me.

WC: My pleasure.

* The Rossini Opera Festival’s production of Aureliano in Palmira is available on ArtHaus DVDs under the direction of Will Crutchfield. Michael Spyres and Jessica Pratt star.

** Georgia Jarman stars as Roxana in the Opus Arte Blu ray of the Covent Garden production of Szymanowski’s Król Roger (King Roger), featuring also Marius Kwiecien and Saimir Pirgu, conducted by Antonio Pappano.

Photos, in order, are by Gabe Palacio, Kelly Moore, Dario Acosta, and Roberto Giostra.

Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira is performed at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in the Venetian Theater on the evening of Saturday, July 16. The title role is sung by tenor Andrew Owens; Zenobia is taken by soprano Georgia Jarman; Arsace is essayed by Tamara Mumford, mezzo soprano. Will Crutchfield conducts the Orchestra of St. Lukes.

Beethoven’s Fidelio is performed on the evening of Saturday, July 30. Elza van den Heever sings the noble Leonore, Paul Groves will sing the role of Florestan, Marzelline is Georgia Jarman, Rocco, her father, is taken by Kristinn Sigmundsson, the evil Don Pizarro is taken by Alfred Walker, and Jacquino is sung by Andrew Owens. The Orchestra of St. Luke's is under the baton of Pablo Heras-Casado, who makes his conducting debut for Bel Canto at Caramoor.

On the evening of July 7 the Bel Canto Young Artists perform arias and duets under the cover of The Intimate Rossini; on July 21 they perform Beethoven in Song.

The Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts is located outside Katonah, NY. In addition to the music the lovely grounds afford ample space for pre-performance picnicing; parking is free.

For tickets and further information, please visit the Caramoor website:

Peace be with you all. Enjoy! JRS