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July 6, 2009

Castleton Festival on Lorin Maazel's Virginia estate opens with compelling 'Turn of the Screw'

Castleton FestivalCastleton Farms, the 550-acre Virginia estate of celebrated conductor Lorin Maazel, is sort of like Michael Jackson’s Neverland, without the tackiness. In addition to the stately manor house, the well-manicured grounds include an intimate theater, a pool house, lakes (one of them where a group of ostriches and at least one swan hang out), and a zoo that boasts a camel, a zebra, a “zonkey,” pigs, goats and llamas. It’s all very cool, classy, and very welcoming.

The opening weekend of the 2009 Castleton Festival included an open house on the Fourth of July, when the public was invited to roam about freely (you wouldn’t believe the snazzy portable toilets that were brought in for the visitors); take tours of the house where Maazel and his wife, actress Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, live part of the year; and attend a production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, the first of the festival's four Britten stage pieces this summer (only the opera had an admission price).

The festival is a project of the Castleton Foundation, which the Maazels established in 1997 to ...

mentor young artists. Up-and-coming singers, instrumentalists and conductors -- something like 200 in all -- are gaining valuable training and experience, while folks living in the area or willing to make the drive (it took 2 hours and 15 minutes each way on Saturday from north Baltimore) get to enjoy the artistic results. The festival will include orchestral concerts later on, featuring members of the New York Philharmonic, where Maazel just finished up his tenure as music director with an unusually broad-paced, ultimately enriching performance of Mahler’s Eighth.

Castleton FestivalA few years ago, Maazel led The Turn of the Screw, his first performance of a Britten stage work, as part of the summer mentoring program. That staging, unveiled in the Theater House at Castleton, was subsequently presented at the Kennedy Center. The new production would be deserving of exposure elsewhere as well.

Saturday afternoon’s performance boasted a uniformly dynamic cast, superb playing by students from London’s Royal College of Music, taut and involving direction by William Kerley, and typically masterful conducting by Maazel. Nicholas Vaughan’s stark, yet evocative, sets and costumes were a significant asset. Same for Rie Ono’s lighting (the way she illuminated the fateful, sealed letter in the second act was especially fine).

Attending an opera in this warm, wood-filled theater, which seats only 130 on six rows on the main floor and a small balcony, automatically means an extra level of involvement in the music and drama. On Saturday, there was very little distance separating opera-goers from the performers, who often moved onto a lip of the stage that extended beyond the cozy orchestra pit, and, in the case of the two ghosts in the work, sometimes appeared right alongside unsuspecting patrons. This in-your-face element was ideal for such a tense, fast-moving piece as The Turn of the Screw.

Charlotte Dobbs was a persuasive Governess, her growing fear and concern registering with telling force. She revealed a silvery soprano and considerable expressive nuance (her fast vibrato seemed doubly appropriate, given the plot). Steven Ebel made a particularly strong impression as Quint, and not just for the way he managed to sing so vividly while practically hanging by a thread over the balcony in his first scene. Throughout, the tenor produced a honeyed tone and negotiated even the most florid lines with admirable smoothness. He conveyed the curious attractiveness and hideous insinuations of the spectral character in compelling fashion.

For the most part, 13-year-old Harry Risoleo, as Miles, offered confident, effective work, musically and dramatically. Kirby Anne Hall’s colorful singing added to her knowing portrayal of Flora. Rachel Calloway, as Mrs. Grose, sounded a bit strident at full-throttle (in this very small house, a little vocal power goes a long way), but hers was a vibrant, insightful effort. Greta Ball sang sturdily and affectingly as Miss Jessel. Brian Porter made the most of the Prologue’s brief lines, delivered with great clarity and subtlety. A potent performance all around.

The festival continues with productions of The Rape of Lucretia July 10 -12, and Albert Herring July 17-19 (Maazel conducts the first night of each). Remaining performances of Britten’s arrangement of John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera are July 12, 16 and 18. Orchestral concerts, led by Maazel, will be held July 11 and 19.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:58 AM | | Comments (1)


I also attended this performance. I agree with your comment about Rie Ono's lighting - ("the way she illuminated the fateful, sealed letter in the second act was especially fine"). It reminded me of the scene in the Alfred Hitchcock movie, "Suspicion," when Cary Grant is carrying a suspect glass of milk up to Joan Fontaine. The glass appeared lit from within. (Which, in fact, it was!) All in all, thouroughly enjoyable day at the farm.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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