A captivating night with Shakespeare, Mirren, Irons, Maazel

For lovers of Shakespeare, great actors and exceptional music-makers, the Castleton Festival offered an ideal package Thursday night at Strathmore.

You could call it an early-summer night's dream.


No less than Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons were on hand to recite excerpts from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," as Lorin Maazel conducted the Castleton Festival Orchestra in brilliantly atmospheric incidental music Mendelssohn wrote for a 19th century production of that play.

Rounding out the program, Maazel and the orchestra offered "Romeo and Juliet"-inspired music by Russian composers.

We hear Mendelssohn's music quite often in concert and on recordings (innumerable couples get an earful of the Wedding March every year, of course), but a taste of the text in conjunction with the sonic embellishment is much rarer. Rarer still is the chance to hear Shakespeare's poetic words delivered by such luminaries of the stage and screen.

A new narration written for this presentation by J. D. McClatchy (he collaborated on the libretto for Maazel's opera "1984") proved quite entertaining as well and gave the actors extra opportunities to shine. The net result was that, in about 90 minutes or so, the performance conveyed so much of the play's magic that it was easy to picture a full-fledgedproduction.

Located stage left on a small platform and looking quite chic, Mirren and Irons ...

cavorted verbally and sometimes physically as they portrayed several characters. They seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves up there.

Irons, in particular, had a field day, trying out various voices and accents with terrific vibrancy, hitting a peak as the temporarily donkey-fied Bottom. With an abundance of color and inflection in their speech, Mirren and Irons produced as much music, in a way, as the orchestra players.

This is not to slight the performance that Maazel was shaping. Even allowing for an occasional slip of intonation or articulation, the ensemble of young professionals and advanced students did admirably sensitive work, responding to the conductor's finely detailed phrase-molding. The vocal portions of the score were elegantly sung by sopranos Joyce El-Khoury and Tharanga Goonetilleke and the women of the Castleton Festival Chorus.

During the orchestra-only half of the concert, I was disappointed that Maazel kept the lid on in selections from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" ballet score. Those chilling dissonant chords that emerge at the start of "Montagues and Capulets," for example, never quite registered on the seismograph. (I was sure they would, given the brass-fueled power displayed in the "La Boheme" performance at Castleton's home base deep in the Virginia countryside last weekend.)

But Maazel did ensure that pathos and incisive power emerged in the passages depicting "The Death of Tybalt" and "Romeo at Juliet's Tomb." There was much to admire in the playing, especially from the strings.

Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" received a remarkably taut, vivid performance. Maazel's attention to small shifts in dynamics helped to freshen many well-worn phrases, and what he did with the final portion of the score was sensational -- very spaciously paced, compelling expressive weight in each measure. Tragedy writ large.

The Castleton Festival, founded by Lorin Maazel and his wife, Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, has put itself on the map in just a few short years. This year's how-can-you-keep-'em-down-on-the-farm schedule brings the organization to a wider audience in the D.C. area (three presentations will be held in July at the Hyton Center in Manassas), as well as Toronto (where the Shakespeare program was presented Wednesday) and Beijing (at the end of the month).

I hope the increased exposure will help draw more support to this remarkable enterprise, which has had such a fresh spark from the start and seems to have such great potential. The Shakespeare night certainly showed off the Castleton brand in a most captivating light.