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Castleton Festival opens

Edited to add: A modified version of this review ran in Monday's Washington Post: Young "Trittico" cast makes Castleton worth the trip, by Anne Midgette.

On Friday night, Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival began its second season by demonstrating two things. One: it isn’t yet a capital-E Event. At the start of the holiday weekend, when people are likely to have made plans involving beaches and travel rather than opera, there were plenty of seats available for Puccini’s trilogy “Il Trittico” in the new 400-seat festival tent.

Two: it should be. Friday’s performances were terrific. You don’t expect, from what is essentially a training festival, shows that eclipse many professional opera companies; but that’s what these young singers offered. And of course the conducting, from the 80-year-old Maazel, was world-class.
(read more after the jump)

There’s something slightly incongruous about Castleton. It’s a mom-and-pop festival on the Maazels’ private estate, where Maazel and his wife, Dietlinde, welcome young artists for several weeks of workshops, coachings, and performances, and where they greeted Friday’s gala opening-night audience with a formal dinner served in long intermissions between each of the three one-act operas. (The performance, as a result, extended over more than five hours.) Yet “pop” has a reputation as a slightly forbidding, formidably smart figure who does not suffer fools lightly. The video of him introducing the festival that was played before Friday’s performance felt strangely amateurish, and oddly avuncular. After years of expecting people to come to hear him, Maazel is learning that you have to reach out when you go into the presenting field yourself.

It helps to give people a reason to come, and that, this “Trittico” does in spades. It didn’t matter that Nicholas Vaughan’s set for “Il tabarro” (the coat), the first of the three operas, looked like a barge as designed by Ikea, or even that the reduced orchestra (including a synthesizer), crisp and clear as it was under Maazel, tended to overpower the singers. When the tenor Noah Stewart stepped on stage as the workman Luigi, his white-hot talent brought both plot and story into focus, and overrode his own need for more vocal polish on his top notes; not all of the notes may have been perfect, but he sang them as if they meant something. The uncontrollable physical passion between him and Giorgetta (Jessica Klein), the wife of his barge-captain boss Michele (Nicholas Pallesen), was not only credible but palpable. After his entrance, Klein lost some of her initial aggressive perkiness and unleashed her penetrating soprano, and Pallesen gave a gently sung, if somewhat generic, account of Michele, who ends up killing his wife’s lover. (“Trittico” excels at over-the-top endings.)

Castleton has managed to find a bevy of strong singing actors. Often, this is a polite way of saying that they can’t sing very well; here, it means they showed an old-school involvement with text and story as well as with the technical sides of their assignments. Corey Crider, in the title role of “Gianni Schicchi” (which, unusually, followed “Tabarro”), was a prime example: he entered in sunglasses, with a street swagger, and then opened his mouth and revealed a big, easy, expressive baritone. And Joyce El-Khouri, as his daughter Lauretta, was another example: she actually managed to deliver “O mio babbino caro,” the most famous tune of the evening, with completely convincing acting, simultaneously wrapping her father around her finger, giving her fiancé Rinuccio (the rather nasal Edited to add: Matthew Plenk Zach Borichevsky) an emphatic thumbs-up behind her back, and floating out the gorgeous tune with aplomb.

But the “Schicchi” was altogether a delight. Musically the strongest of the three works, and the evening’s comic relief against two tragedies, it was amusingly updated (one of the bequests in the rich uncle’s will, a mule, was here a life-sized Damian Hurst-style artwork, in formaldehyde) and strongly cast. When three female relatives surround Schicchi, helping him to prepare to masquerade as the dead uncle so he can forge a new will, the trio was meltingly gorgeous. Tharanga Goonetilleke, who sang in all three pieces, was a particular standout; Margaret Gawrysiak, who was also Frugola in “Tabarro,” showed a powerful voice.

The evening would have felt complete after these two works (indeed, Castleton is breaking up the trilogy over two days in some future performances). And “Suor Angelica” is perhaps the most difficult to perform. Set in a convent, it has no male voices; its first half consists mainly of nuns acting cute, and its second half consists of some of the biggest and most heart-wrenching singing in the Italian repertory. On Friday, there was additional drama. By 11 p.m., when this final opera began, Rebekah Camm, the scheduled lead, already announced as ill, was no longer able to perform, and El-Khoury, who had already sung Lauretta, stepped in, though the role of Angelica calls for a far heavier voice.

You certainly wouldn’t want to hear El-Khoury sing this part every day. But I am glad I heard her sing it Friday. The expressivity and musicality she brought to the role more than made up for the fact that it was a couple of sizes too big for her. She helped bring alive the standoff between Angelica, who has not seen her family for seven years, and the Zia Principessa (Maria Isabel Vera), the aunt who locked her in the convent as punishment for bearing an illegitimate child. Vera’s voice was huge, though somewhat unsteady: another case of tremendous promise. At the end, El-Khoury, learning her child has died, poisons herself so she can join him, then realizes too late that suicide is a mortal sin and begs the Virgin for a sign of forgiveness, in what one might cynically describe as one of the most shameless examples of emotional manipulation in the repertory. It certainly worked on Friday. A portal opened, a small child appeared to the dying Angelica, and in the bleacher-like seats, half of the remaining audience members, those who had made it to the end of the five-hour evening, wept.

The Castleton Festival continues through July 25th.

By Anne Midgette  |  July 3, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  local reviews , opera  
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Dear Anne,

Ms. El Khoury was sublime, I thought, in both.

Mr. Borichevsky was indisposed and did not sing in GS. Rinuccio was Matt Plenk.
I hope you will attend a show with ZB and then let your readers know if he sounded "nasal"!

Please double check your casting before you publish reviews. Your voice is quite powerful and respected in the world of opera criticism. Opera professionals reading this review might take your comment about Zach to heart. Is there any way you could issue a correction?
Thanks so much.

A Zach Borichevsky Fan

Posted by: canbelto | July 4, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Apologies to Mr. Borichevsky - I overlooked a printed insert in the program. I've made the correction.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | July 5, 2010 12:06 AM | Report abuse

It appears to me that Mr. Borichevsky (regardless of a pleasant vocal timbre) is "indisposed" quite a bit.

Just this year he was sick for AVA scenes performances as well as "under the weather" for the Boheme, also at AVA, which he went on to sing...not at his best.

And now again sick for this? Is this some sort of vocal problem? Is he not up to the roles he accepts? Or a singer who is unable to stay healthy? Inquiring minds want to know.

Posted by: operaman69 | July 5, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

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