Castleton Festival on Lorin Maazel's Virginia estate opens with compelling 'Turn of the Screw'
Castleton 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.
A 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.
PHOTOS OF 'THE TURN OF THE SCREW' BY NICHOLAS VAUGHAN, COURTESY OF CASTLETON FESTIVAL; PHOTOS OF CASTLETON FARMS BY YOUR HUMBLE BLOGGER