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Châteauville Foundation, Rape of Lucretia

The critical failure of Lorin Maazel's partially self-financed opera, 1984, was quite a fiasco. Another project funded by Maazel and his wife, the Châteauville Foundation, is poised to become an inspirational success. The Maazels have given over their own property -- Castleton Farms in Rappahannock County, Virginia, about 90 minutes by car from Washington, D.C. -- to build a 150-seat theater/recital hall. There is also enough guest housing space to invite 50-some young musicians once a year to collaborate on a chamber opera under Maazel's experienced baton. Last year's production of The Turn of the Screw, presented for a single performance at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, was the best opera of the Washington season. That was the first experiment with what the foundation is now calling its Castleton Residency for Young Artists.

Omar the CamelThe goal is to foster the careers of young instrumentalists and singers, as well as to offer educational programs that bring music into the lives of young children. The Castleton Farms campus is set in the bucolic hills near Shenandoah National Park, and the Maazels have created a fairy tale atmosphere by bringing a host of unusual animals to live there, emus, llamas, and a zebra -- a sort of Prospero Maazel's Island. Indeed, Ionarts discovered on Saturday evening that, as you drive on smaller and smaller roads to get to Castleton Farms, you know you are there when you see the zonkey, the zebra's offspring with a donkey. A camel named Omar, pictured here, makes scary noises but is a soft touch if you come bearing matzo.

The foundation's latest production, Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, which I have reviewed recently in a DVD performance by English National Opera, sets the famous story from the prehistory of Rome. Livy told the story in the first book of Ab urbe condita, and it was adapted by Britten's librettist Ronald Duncan from a modern French play, André Obey's Le Viol de Lucrèce (adapted separately in English by Thornton Wilder), itself based on Shakespeare's adaptation, The Rape of Lucrece. The news of the virtuous Roman wife's rape by her Etruscan overlord inflamed the rebellious spirit of the Romans, according to Livy, and led to the overthrow of the Etruscans. In the opera that story is told by a male and female narrator, who relate its tragedy to the redemption offered by Jesus Christ.

Last year, for Turn of the Screw, members of the New York Philharmonic recommended worthy students from Juilliard to Maazel. This year the program draws upon members of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas for its orchestral musicians. They are all talented young players, who can now list an opera under Lorin Maazel on their resumes. The plaintive and low sounds of the alto flute (Bianca Garcia) and English horn (Elizabeth Koch) were especially moving on Saturday night, as were the all-important colors of the much-used harp (Earecka Tregenza). The only minor disappointment was the sound of an electronic keyboard, played well by Justina Lee, but with an unfortunately canned sound. The pit in the warm, blond wood-paneled theater is accessed by a staircase, and space is at too much of a premium to have a piano hoisted in. It was bad enough to manage to get the harp down there.

Matthew Worth (Tarquinius) and Tamara Mumford (Lucretia), Rape of Lucretia, Châteauville Foundation, 2007, photo by Giuseppe Di Liberto
(see more pictures of this production)
The vocal cast was uniformly excellent, with stand-out performances from lovely mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford as Lucretia and baritones Paul LaRosa (Junius) and Matthew Worth (Tarquinius). When Mumford's Lucretia walked through the audience in a black veil and carrying the harness that was the symbol of Tarquinius's attack, it brought home the dread of the opera's conclusion. Vale Rideout was full-voiced and dramatically convincing as the Male Chorus, and Arianna Zukerman embodied the sympathetic anger of the opera's women as the Female Chorus. I reviewed the Peabody Chamber Opera's production of The Rape of Lucretia in February, and that collegiate cast was given the opportunity to serve as covers for the Châteauville Foundation main cast.

William Kerley's elegant and minimalist production cast the roles of male and female chorus as fervent Christians who appeared to be writing a book together about this episode in Roman history. They sometimes crossed themselves, which seemed Catholic, but their costumes, including the Male Chorus's tie with a cross design on it, seemed Protestant. The best part of the staging was in the second act, which began with cast members shining flashlights insidiously over the audience. The singers then delivered the chorus of angry Romans while standing in the aisles along either side of the audience, even pounding loudly on the screens from the side stairways.

We hope that the Châteauville Foundation's Castleton Residency for Young Artists flourishes as it should. It does seem a shame not to bring these productions for at least a single performance at the Kennedy Center. The audience will be unfortunately limited for private performances. (My understanding is that scheduling difficulties made the Terrace Theater impossible this year.) Before too long, the Foundation will exhaust the limited number of chamber operas appropriate for the size of the Rappahannock venue and ensemble. It is time to begin thinking about commissioning new chamber operas, too, which could be an excellent, if more expensive, way to foster new audiences for opera.

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