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Summer Opera: Castleton Festival 1

(L to R) Harry Risoleo (Miles), Rachel Calloway (Mrs. Grose), Charlotte Dobbs (the Governess), and Kirby Anne Hall (Flora) in The Turn of the Screw, Châteauville Foundation (photo by Nicholas Vaughan)
The area's newest summer opera festival, the Castleton Festival, opened on Friday night at Lorin Maazel's estate in Rappahannock County, Virginia. This festival's model, if indeed it has one, is likely Glyndebourne: an improbable location far into the countryside where city-dwelling opera lovers would come on pilgrimage to get away from it all. As the roads became narrower and narrower on the drive to Castleton Farms, the location of Maazel's Châteauville Foundation, the clean air and rural smells flowed through the car window. As I waited for the curtain of the festival's first production, Britten's Turn of the Screw (libretto by Myfanwy Piper, based on the novella by Henry James), the sound of cows lowing and frogs croaking wafted over the pond behind Festival House. Surrounded by a menagerie of animals -- a camel (named Omar and fond of matzo), a zebra, and the fabled zonkey (the zebra's offspring with a donkey) -- Maazel reigns here like Prospero on his island, directing young performers he invites to mount productions of chamber operas.

Maazel has been hosting concerts in his home for over a decade, but he first came onto the Ionarts radar when a chamber opera production sponsored by the Châteauville Foundation suddenly appeared on the schedule of the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater back in 2005. Not quite sure what to expect, both Jens and yours truly showed up and were very impressed by that bone-chilling performance of The Turn of the Screw. Maazel decided not to revive that sinister staging, by director Barbara Eckle and choreographer Abigail Levine, instead entrusting a new staging to William Kerley, recently appointed as the festival's Resident Stage Director. It took advantage of the unusual shapes and details of the smaller Festival House stage, with Miss Jessel and Peter Quint serenading the children from the rail of the balcony. The single set backdrop (sets and costumes by Nicholas Vaughan) established the predominant tone of black color, with a large window and columns that moved back and forth, adding to the possessed, claustrophobic feel of this incarnation of Bly Manor. A black arch framed the proscenium, echoed by a narrow walkway that extended the stage space around the pit, which also served as Bly Park's lake.

Charlotte Dobbs (the Governess) in The Turn of the Screw, Châteauville Foundation (photo by Nicholas Vaughan)
At the top of the young cast was the Flora of Kirby Anne Hall, singing with a convincing child-like tone (which did much to strengthen the sound of her Miles when they sang together) and acting with commitment and an intensely sinister face. She was matched well by the ghoulish Miss Jessel of Greta Ball, who with her sharp and present voice was much more insidious in this production than Quint, rising up like a viperous specter from a patch of reeds (the only time the hair on my arms stood on end) and again, her hair dripping, from the lake-pit in Act II. The Quint of Steven Ebel was rounded and suave more than particularly evil, although one might suspect that, given Britten's attachment to teenage boys, the role might have some ambiguities. The Miles of St. Alban's student Harry Risoleo, while admirably composed and glowingly sung (the Malo aria was boyishly sweet), seemed curiously detached, deflating some of the opera's most anxious moments.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Coming Up Big in a Tiny Space (Washington Post, July 6)

Tim Smith, Castleton Festival on Lorin Maazel's Virginia estate opens with compelling 'Turn of the Screw' (Clef Notes, July 6)

Philip Kennicott, The Debut of the Castelton Festival (Philip Kennicott, July 6)
The dryness of the theater, perhaps affected unfavorably by the addition of the proscenium and walkway, seemed to expose the voice of Charlotte Dobbs as the Governess, although that timorous quality also suited the character's neurotic hysteria, which she captured beautifully. Dobbs's knowledge of the role did not seem all that secure either, with at least one false entrance and numerous others prevented only by the firm gesture of Maazel's cue hand. She had a strong counterweight in the vocally stout Mrs. Grose of Rachel Calloway. Thirteen young musicians from the Royal College of Music in London gave a mostly smooth reading of this complex score, an extended set of variations growing from the theme presented in the prologue. For the first time in the history of Festival House, a real (spinet) piano was somehow hoisted down into the pit (the harp, timpani, and tubular bells must have been hard enough). All in all, it was not the stunning experience of that first Turn of the Screw in 2005, but it was a fine opening to three weeks of Britten's chamber operas.

This opera will be repeated this evening (July 4, 5 pm) and tomorrow afternoon (July 5, 2 pm). Today's performance is the crowning moment of an Independence Day Open House at the Castleton Festival, with chamber music performances, food and activities, and post-opera fireworks and dancing.

1 comment:

rachf said...

Castleton is a wonderful addition to the classical landscape of DC and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Festival today. The setting was glorious and I thought the production was top-notch. The small, intimate theater made the opera feel particularly dark and creepy. I look forward to many future excursions to the Castleton Festival.