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July 6, 2010

Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival opens with potent Puccini production

It got pretty hot inside the Castleton Festival's big tent on the grounds of Lorin Maazel's Virginia estate Sunday afternoon.

For one thing, there was a fairly long stretch when the air-conditioning failed; even when it was restored, the temperature wasn't exactly refreshing. But that didn't turn out to be such a horrible inconvenience in the end.

There also appeared to be some heat, as in hot around the collar, down in the orchestra pit. Maazel, one of the greatest conductors of our time, did not look like he was  having a good time. This was especially the case during "Suor Angelica," the last third of Puccini's "Il Trittico," when he could be heard stomping on the podium and (if my ears didn't deceive me) expressing verbal annoyance with the response of the players. Significantly, Maazel did not take a bow, as custom dictates, at the end of the production; that meant the orchestra got no bow, either. I can't say I noticed anything terribly awry in the playing, just little things that might have been smoother or more expressive, but Maazel certainly gave every impression of being displeased.

In the end, the heat that mattered most was

onstage, where the festival's troupe of young professionals sang with admirable commitment and style.

In an intriguing departure from tradition, the Castleton presentation of "Trittico" changes the order of the one-act operas. Instead of the two tragedies, "Il Tabarro" and "Suor Angelica" followed by the comedy "Gianni Schicchi," the latter is placed in the middle. (On some days, the festival will also present one or two works at a time, rather than all three).

I rather liked the dark-light-dark progression Sunday afternoon, although it meant heading out of the tent all shook up and teary-eyed, rather than with a chuckle. What I didn't like was the time it took to change sets between each piece; there should be a way to handle that more efficiently. No complaints, though, about the performances.

It was gratifying to encounter young singers who got so fully into their roles and who served the music with such care. Castleton's resident stage director, William Kerley, approached each opera with considerable freshness and an eye for telling detail. Maazel's tempos reflected nearly equal concern for momentum and breadth of expression.

"Il Tabarro," a steamy story of love on the rocks and the docks, benefited from particularly powerful singing by tenor Noah Stewart as Luigi, the stevedore who falls for the barge owner's wife, Giorgetta. His top notes didn't always cooperate, but the rest hit home impressively, and Stewart's acting proved just as impassioned and persuasive. As Giorgetta, Jessica Klein sang vividly (her anguished reaction to the murder of her lover registered with shattering impact), although some more cream would have been welcome in the tone here and there. 

Nicholas Pallesen did sturdy work as the unfortunate spouse, Michele, and there were fine contributions from the supporting cast, especially Zach Borichevsky as Tinca and Margaret Gawyrisiak as Frugola.

The two tragedies featured basically conventional sets and costumes (by Nicholas Vaughan); "Gianni Schicchi," a tale of greedy folks in 13th-century Florence trying to get back into a deceased relative's will, got a delicious update to our own time. There were clever ways around what would have been major anachronisms; the most problematic, a mule that the medieval Florentines especially coveted, was turned here into a Damien Hirst-like,  animal-in-formaldehyde sculpture. Kerley drew from the sparkling cast a true ensemble effort. A strained high note or two aside, Corey Crider sang the title role in robust voice and acted up a storm. Joyce El-Khoury made a lovely sound as Lauretta, shaping the opera's hit aria, "O mio babbino caro," with a refreshing naturalness and producing a sweet tone in the process. (Having her give the thumbs-up sign to her boyfriend midway through the aria, as she sensed her father caving into her request, was a fun touch). Gawyrisiak was again in great form, this time as Zita. Borichevsky sounded taxed in the upper reaches, but otherwise shone as Rinuccio. Tharanga Goonetilleke, as Nella, stood out for her sweet, pure tone.

"Suor Angelica," the story of a woman who entered a convent after having an illegitimate child, is a tricky piece that mixes heavy drama and sentimentality, then reaches the very edge of kitsch in its closing moments. I admired the way that Kerley accepted the opera as it is, treated it with the utmost respect and, in the finale, delivered the intended emotional jolt without overdoing a thing.

Rebekah Camm, who had to cancel Friday's opening night performance in the title role, was still under the weather Sunday afternoon, but agreed to sing. I'm glad she did. The few times when she sounded indisposed were very brief and did not take away at all from that fact that this is a soprano with "major career potential" written all over her vocal cords. Her tone filled out the space easily and revealed an Italianate warmth; her phrasing was deeply communicative. Maria Isabel Vera, as Angelica's icy aunt, revealed a sizable voice with a burnished timbre and gave a compelling portrayal of a most unpleasant character. The rest of cast did colorful, engaging work.

If you haven't yet made the trip into the pretty hill country of Rappahannock County to sample the Castleton Festival, which was launched last summer, the Puccini triptych would be a great excuse for a first visit. (And, presumably, Maazel will find a way to make right whatever may have bothered him on Saturday.) The lineup also offers a reprise of an arresting production of Britten's "The Turn of the Screw," presented in the permanent Theatre House on the grounds. There will also be a new de Falla/Stravinsky double bill and some orchestral concerts before the festival wraps up July 25.

PHOTOS OF 'SUOR ANGELICA' (by E. Raymond Boc), 'IL TABARRO' (by Victoria Aschheim), GIANNI SCHICCHI' (by Nicholas Vaughan) COURTESY OF CASTLETON FESTIVAL 


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:30 AM | | Comments (3)


Thanks for your review. I missed the Maazel/Orchestra no-bow scene at the end. I left as soon as the house lights came up a bit, knowing that I had a 90 minute drive ahead of me. It was a LONG afternoon! I'll definitely be back at Castleton next year. It's like having a Santa Fe or Glimmerglass in one's own back yard!

Best regards,
Michael Heintz in Alexandria

I neglected to mention how delighted I was to see so many younger people in attendance at Castleton on both Saturday and Sunday!


I'd like to make a small point of clarification.

The air conditioner wasn't on because the noise irritates Mr. Maazel. All of the rehearsals and performances in the festival tent are sans air conditioner, which isn't so bad at night but rather horrendous during the morning and afternoon. The reason it was turned on for the final two operas on Sunday was because so many people in the audience complained and/or left during Tabarro.

In fact, the maestro's perceived annoyance with the musicians was likely augmented by his irritation with the air conditioner. According to him, the heat is easily remedied if we just "think cool."

Thanks for the report. I rather suspected he (and others involved) would never want to have all that noise during the performances, and I was very glad the a/c was turned back off for the end of 'Suor Angelica.' (This was my first tent experience there.) Of course, had someone -- preferably himself -- explained things to the audience, there may well have been more willingness to 'think cool.' TS

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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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