A Woman Goes Crazy: An Early Version
Marcus Yam for The New York Times
“Nina, o sia La Pazza per Amore,” with Margaret Newcomb and Robert Murphy at the Manhattan School of Music.
By ZACHARY WOOLFE
Published: April 1, 2011
Opera is madness. We love it because we love watching women fall apart mentally and physically because of the tension between female singers, who must be in total control, and their female characters, who keep losing control.
Giovanni Paisiello’s 1789 opera “Nina, o sia La Pazza per Amore” (“Nina, or the Girl Driven Mad by Love”) was one of this art form’s earliest depictions of female insanity. The following decades brought the mad scenes of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” and “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Bellini’s “I Puritani” and “La Sonnambula” (that one’s a sleepwalking scene, but still), whose suffering characters later evolved into the suicidal, tubercular heroines of Verdi and Puccini.
The plot of “Nina” is essentially that of “Lucia”: a young woman is forced by a repressive male relative to abandon her lover for another, wealthier suitor, whereupon she promptly goes mad. But while Donizetti and Bellini saw the drama in portraying healthy women who dissolve, “Nina” begins with a mad protagonist and charts her joyous return to sanity when she’s finally reunited with her lover.
Like the rest of Paisiello’s works, “Nina” promptly fell out of the repertory. It’s only recently that two European productions have revived interest in it: one in 1999 in Milan, with Riccardo Muti conducting Anna Caterina Antonacci and Juan Diego Flórez, and the other in Zurich in 2002, starring Cecilia Bartoli and Jonas Kaufmann. On Thursday evening the Manhattan School of Music presented what it called the opera’s United States premiere, in a workshop production featuring its fourth-year undergraduates.
Trimmed and with spoken English dialogue, the opera played beautifully, with graceful music throughout, sonorous choruses and a radiant finale. Nina’s insanity is subtly worked into the score, her phrases melodic but poignantly broken and repetitive. She and her lover, Lindoro, each get a wrenching solo scene; as DVDs of both the Milan and Zurich productions show, “Nina” can be deeply moving.
Conducted by Jorge Parodi, the school’s appealing cast features Margaret Newcomb as Nina, Robert Murphy as Lindoro, and Colin Ramsey, Jason Cox and Ana Quintana. Dona Vaughn’s simple production emphasizes the work’s charm more than its intensity, but certainly proves that “Nina” deserves attention and professional American revivals.
Most of all, “Nina” reminds us of opera’s deep connection to madness, of that eerie, irresistible mixture of empathy and exhilaration we feel watching a woman go crazy onstage. All you need to know about opera is that when serious fans really want to praise a performance, they simply say, “That was demented.”
“Nina” repeats on Saturday evening and, with a different cast, on Sunday afternoon at the Manhattan School of Music, 122nd Street and Broadway, Morningside Heights; (917) 493-4428, msmnyc.edu.
A version of this review appeared in print on April 2, 2011, on page C8 of the New York edition with the headline: A Woman Goes Crazy: An Early Version.