I told you this would be a good summer to check out the Castleton Festival. There has been plenty of worthwhile activity each year at this venture, held deep in verdant Virginia countryside on the estate of celebrated conductor Lorin Maazel, but this fifth anniversary season stands out.
To start, two large-scale operas -- Verdi's "Otello" and Puccini's "La fanciulla del West." The opportunity to hear Maazel, one of the world's most impressive podium masters, lead these works is reason enough to make the schlep (a minimum two-and-a-half-hour drive from downtown Baltimore).
The festival has put together generally solid casts for both productions, even with the pressure of last-minute illnesses and substitutions. And the stagings in both cases are effective, once again proving the viability of the Festival Theatre, a semi-permanent building that seats about 650 and is located on a field with calming views of hills and farmland.
Then there is the double bill in the exceedingly intimate Theatre House (just 138, tightly-packed seats). This gem of a structure, close to the Maazel home, is the venue for performances of Cocteau's one-woman play "La voix humaine," paired with the better known opera by Poulenc it inspired.
There are other enticements this summer, too, including orchestral and chamber concerts, but opera is always front-and-center at Castleton, where young singers get a chance to hone their craft with notable mentors and, of course, Maazel.
The conductor was in white-hot form for opening night of "Otello" Saturday. The curtain-raising storm scene, containing some of Verdi's most inspired writing for orchestra and chorus, grabbed hold with a vengeance as Maazel whipped his forces into a fury.
He gave every subsequent burst of drama in the score terrific undelining, but hardly slighted the softer, gentler side. Introspective passages, especially the orchestral coda to the Ave Maria, were sculpted with exquisite, poetic nuance.
Frank Porretta, stepping in for an ailing Rafael Rojas, did not produce a great deal of tonal warmth or a wide range of dynamic variety as Otello. But the tenor gave an honest, carefully articulated, emotionally committed account of the demanding role.
As Desdemona, Joyce El-Khoury sounded cautious early on, but her voice blossomed steadily. She summoned a gutsy tone for her pushback against Otello in the third act, and spun out silken phrases in the finale that touched the sublime.
Although he tended to sneer a little too frequently (sometimes in cartoon-villain style), Javier Arrey was a potent Iago. As long as he was not pushing the voice (much of the Credo was shouted), the baritone offered a suave tone, supple phrasing and extraordinary sensitivity to text. Kirk Daugherty was the vivid Cassio (he is set to sing Otello July 26).
The chorus summoned an imposing sound. A few minor slips aside, the orchestra turned in a sterling performance.
The well-traveled Peter Hall production, which updates the action to Napoleonic times and features a handsome, two-story set designed by John Gunter, was fluidly and often compellingly directed here by Lynne Hockney. (A scene of Otello crudely assaulting Desdemona had an unnerving impact.)
Another two-story wooden set, this one by Davide Gilioli, was unveiled for Puccini's irresistible (to some of us, at least) spaghetti Western.
Directed dynamically by Giandomenico Vaccari, and guaranteed abundant lyricism and power from Maazel, this "Fanciulla" had a lot going for it -- until a throat inflection rode into town and made off with Minnie's voice after the first performance July 6.
Ekaterina Metlova, who sang on that opening night, could only mime the action onstage on Friday -- and very convincingly (Gilioli's costumes gave her a nice hint of Joan Crawford in "Johnny Guitar"). Soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, who arrived on the fastest stage coach from New York mere hours beforehand, sang the role from the pit.
All things considered, the opera was well served. Blancke-Biggs did not just pump out the notes for what is one of Puccini's toughest assignments, but sang Minnie's music with warmth and subtlety.
Jonathan Burton was the vocally hearty Dick Johnson, Paul LaRosa the underpowered Rance (his fluent acting compensated considerably for lack of vocal heft). Most of the other soloists registered firmly; the chorus lost tonal cohesiveness here and there, but sang expressively.
Maazel was, of course, a major star of the production, drawing out the rich atmosphere of the score at every turn, especially the shimmering warmth at the ends of Acts 1 and 3, the ferocious dramatic weight at the close of 2.
The Cocteau/Poulenc production, sharing the astute direction of Maria Tucci and basically the same sleek design by Francois-Pierre Couture, proved quite absorbing on Saturday afternoon.
Accomplished German-born actress Dietlinde Turban Maazel, the conductor's wife and co-founder/associate director of the festival, gave a beautifully detailed, thoroughly natural portrayal of the play's sole character -- a woman clinging by telephone to the lover who has ended their affair.
(The play was done in an English translation that could have used a few synonyms for "darling.")
Jennifer Black took the stage to perform the same role as transformed by Poulenc. Unlike Turban, the soprano spent a great deal of time sitting on the floor, cradling the phone, wisely letting the tense music do the emoting. Her singing was well-focused, subtly nuanced and, especially in the closing minutes, very affecting.
Except for something of a derailment at the end, there were admirable contributions from the pit, where conductor Antonio Mendez presided over the stylish orchestra.