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June 28, 2011

Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival opens with an effective 'La Boheme'

Some people wouldn't cross the street to hear an opera. And some opera lovers wouldn't cross the street to hear yet another "La Boheme."

Me, I'll drive nearly three hours for a "Boheme" and nearly three to get back home -- all in the same day, which is what I did on Saturday to catch that Puccini classic at Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival deep into Rappahannock County Virginia.

The landed gentry turned out for the opening night, as did some pretty newsy folks -- I spotted Carter Administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bush/Clinton/Bush counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine and frequent MSNBC commentator David Corn. Hey, a little crowd-gazing is always fun.

(This opening gala was a fundrasier for the festival, which has a roughly $2 million budget. As Maazel, whose own money has been the main support for the enterprise, told me recently: "God helps those who help themselves, but there's a limit, obviously.")

The Castleton Festival proved its Puccini chops with last summer’s absorbing production of "Il Trittico." For "Boheme," Maazel had a freshly erected pavilion that offered a larger orchestra pit (and more cooperative air conditioning ) than the rented one used last year.

Although Maazel has praised the acoustics of the facility, I assume that was before a full audience was in the place. The sound on Saturday was a little dry and heavily favored the orchestra (except for the harp, which seemed to be in another room). Voices, at least from my perch about half way up the risers, couldn't always cut through. Still, the overall quality of the venture was easily savored.

The opera got an update to what looked like the 1930s. Nicholas Vaughan’s earth-tone set recalled expressionist films, with off-kilter angles of the looming Parisian rooftops.

Joyce El-Khoury, an endearing presence last summer in "Gianni Schicchi," was ...

again impressive as Mimi, producing a velvety tone shaded with abundant nuance. A very persuasive actress, too. Brian Jagde sang Rodolfo with a good deal of vocal flair. I would have welcomed more dynamic variety, but the ardent, well-focused vocalism paid off.

Suzanne Vinnik's Musetta, refreshingly, showed a more sophisticated side right from her entrance; this wasn't the usual sex-kitten shtick. The soprano matched that multi-layered portrayal with a vibrant voice and consistently animated phrasing. 

Corey Crider was a terrific Marcello, using his warm, supple baritone to colorful effect and inhabiting the role fully, whether cavorting with with his bohemian bros, comforting a distraught Mimi or getting into a no-holds-barred fight with the vibrantly sung Musetta.

That Act 3-closing fight, by the way, was the most distinctive touch in William Kerley's direction -- Musetta even drew some (stage) blood before the lovers kissed and made up, a cool and convincing twist on the original scenario.    

The rest of the ensemble made lively contributions, with Jonathan Beyer standing out for his sturdy, dynamic singing as Schuanard. The adult and children's choruses fulfilled their duties efficiently.

The orchestra hit some bumps, but generally met the challenges admirably. The brass made up for an unfortunate splatter in the last act with a gripping chord -- the one underlining Rodolfo's realization that Mimi has died -- played at a volume that must have been heard in West Virginia. The tragic intensity of it all proved truly stunning.

That chord's impact was one the most satisfying elements in Maazel's conducting. He seemed rather uninvolved during the first act; the music just unfolded. From Musetta's Waltz on, though, he revealed more distinctive phrasing and tempo-shaping, reaching a richly affecting peak of expressive music-making throughout the last act.

There will be three more performances: July 1, 10 and 16.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:48 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera


Another enhancement for the lovely Boheme. Great music lives forever!

Thanks for commenting. TIM

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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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