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Castleton Festival keeps growing

The most atmospheric way to experience the Castleton Festival, which opens Saturday, is to travel down to Virginia's Rappahannock County and catch opera productions or orchestra concerts on the spacious, idyllic estate of celebrated conductor Lorin Maazel.

But this summer, Castleton is expanding beyond the rolling hills of the farm where Maazel and his wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, launched the festival two years ago. If you're not up for the two-hour-plus drive from Baltimore, you can get a taste of the Castleton magic a shorter distance away.

Next week at the Music Center at Strathmore, Maazel conducts a program of Shakespeare-inspired music interspersed with excerpts from the Bard's works recited by no less than Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons.

In July, Maazel will conduct three presentations at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, Va.

If you like, you can also catch Castleton events in Toronto and Beijing.

"It seems we have caught the attention of people around the world," Maazel said by phone from his 550-acre Virginia property. "We have responded to the perception that we are indeed a major festival on an international level."

The 2011 lineup promises to build on the success of the 2009 and 2010 festivals.

"We have a much improved quality of participants this year," Maazel said. "We have fantastic singers. For the orchestra, we were drawing more from student-level musicians before. Now we have young players who are still pre-professional but at the highest possible level. On the third day of rehearsals, I was stunned by their brilliance."

Maazel had a similar reaction when he stepped into the recently completed pavilion where a new production of Puccini's "La Boheme" opens the festival this weekend and where several orchestral concerts will be held in the weeks ahead.

Constructed over three months this spring, the new pavilion replaces rented, air-conditioned tents used during the first two festivals (last year's model had major cooling issues).

"I am really quite thrilled with the way the pavilion has turned out," the conductor said. "The acoustics are extraordinary. It has a large orchestra pit and a beautiful, large stage. It's like a major opera house, really."

The pavilion can seat 900, but the festival plans to limit audience size to 450 to comply with county ordinances.

"This is a quiet part of the world, and we respect that," Maazel said. "We are very grateful to the County Council for being as supportive as they have."

Chamber operas presented in the super-intimate, state-of-the-art Theatre House on the estate grounds have been a popular component at Castleton from the start. This year, works by Manuel de Falla, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel and Kurt Weill will be staged there.

"The audience is practically in our laps," Maazel said, "and we love it."

With Maazel's international stature providing quite a magnet, and with a record for attentive and imaginative nurturing of fresh talent (young artists receive room and board on the estate), the Castleton Festival's reputation and prospects are likely to grow.

"We have come a long way in the last 21/2 years," Maazel said. "We went from, like, zero to being on the international stage."


If you go

•The Castleton Festival is at 663 Castleton View Road, Castleton, Va. For tickets, call 866-974-0767 (toll-free) or 540-937-4969, or go to castletonfestival.org.

•A new production of Puccini's "La Boheme" will be presented at 6 p.m. Saturday (additional performances July 1, 10 and 16) in the Festival Pavilion. Also scheduled for the pavilion is a double bill of Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins" and Ravel's "L'enfant et les Sortileges," July 8, 15 and 23.

•In the Theatre House, Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale" and de Falla's "Master Pedro's Puppet Show" will be staged at 2 p.m. Sunday (repeats July 9 and 16).

•Lorin Maazel conducts the Castleton Festival Orchestra in an all-Bizet program at the pavilion with mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves at 7 p.m. Sunday. Orchestral concerts will also be held there July 3, 17 and 24.

•Maazel leads a concert of Shakespeare-inspired music, with readings by Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons, at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Call 301-581-5100 or go to strathmore.org.

•And Maazel will conduct three Castleton events at the Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas: Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" (in concert) on July 7; Puccini's "Il Tabarro" and "Gianni Schicchi on July 14; and an American music program with Denyce Graves on July 21. Call 888-945-2468 or go to hyltoncenter.org.

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