They’ve added road signs. When you’re driving west on Route 211, looking for your turnoff, a blue highway sign appears, helpfully informing you that this is the way to the Castleton Festival; and the signs continue along the winding country roads through Rappahannock County. Gone are the days when temporary, cardboard markers offered hit-or-miss guidance after the cellphone signal had cut out. After five years, the Virginia Department of Transportation has stepped in, and the Castleton Festival can say it’s truly on the map.
The festival, where Lorin Maazel opened a new production of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (“The Girl of the Golden West”) on Saturday night, has come a long way from the outfit he started in 2008 with chamber operas in the home theater of his sprawling estate. Performance quality has never been an issue at Castleton; now, the operational standards are catching up. This year, the festival moved out from under the Maazel family umbrella into independent, nonprofit status, with its own board of directors; Maazel has even handed over to the foundation the land on which the festival’s current main theater — with its full-size stage and orchestra pit — sits. Certainly this “Fanciulla,” if not without its flaws, could hold its own with any professional company in America.
“Fanciulla” is called Puccini’s Western — Castleton provided a covered wagon and a real cowboy on the grounds to underline the point — but it’s actually about miners in California, rather than cowboys in the Southwest. It’s certainly Puccini’s American opera, based on a popular play by David Belasco (who also wrote the original short story of “Madame Butterfly”), commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and premiered there in 1910 with Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn, the superstars of the day, as Dick Johnson and Minnie (the title role). Musically, it’s one of his densest scores, with relatively few melodies but lots of leitmotifs rising from thick instrumental textures. This sophistication, sometimes slightly stagnant, makes an odd counterpoint to the drama, which runs heavy on homesick miners and throws in a couple of Native Americans speaking pidgin Italian for good measure.
This richness makes good conducting particularly important, and Maazel and his players offered sound to revel in. The best moments came when the huge orchestra was scaled down to a hush so that a single voice or two emerged: the trill of a harp; the miners’ pianissimo singing of a waltz; or the double basses like a beating heart underlining the tension of the pivotal poker scene, when Minnie stakes her future, and that of her beloved Dick, on a hand of poker played with the threatening sheriff Jack Rance.
As for the singing: You could say that casting this big opera with young singers is unfair to the singers and places unrealistic vocal demands on them, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But since professional companies seem to cast the same way these days, shoving smaller voices into bigger roles that don’t fit them, it’s hardly fair to single Castleton out for criticism.
So, although Paul LaRosa was hard to hear as Jack Rance, he looked and played the part well. Jonathan Burton worked hard to pump out the volume of sound needed for Dick Johnson (who is actually the bandit Ramerrez; Belasco excelled at melodramatic cliche), and played the part with a kind of unromantic friendliness and a warm smile that actually convinced me that Minnie might fall for him, since he was so different from anyone else she met. And Ekaterina Metlova did valiantly as Minnie. It’s a part that requires not only volume but the dramatic stature to pull off playing the tomboy-with-a-heart-of-gold figure with more force of personality than anyone on stage. Metlova was more spunky than noble — sporting a flowing shirt and tight black pants like something Johnny Depp might have worn in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” courtesy of Davide Gilioli — but she hit big notes where called for and mostly carried the role, although she couldn’t quite pull off the key moment when she wins the poker game (by cheating) with a heartfelt cry of “Three aces and a pair!” (In Italian, of course.)
Gilioli’s sets met respectable international standards — cue the jokes about how Minnie’s little cabin looked like a palatial ski chalet, a frequent byproduct of a designer’s attempt to reconcile his vision, his budget and the huge scale of an opera proscenium. Like the opera, the sets were best and most evocative in Act I (the bar) and sketchiest in Act III, where it doesn’t matter all that much where we are — Dick Johnson is about to be hanged, and Minnie comes riding in to save him. Giandomenico Vaccari, the director, who generally did a creditable job of making the opera work, appeared to have moved the action here from a California forest to a mine shaft, and, reasonably if regrettably, dispensed with Minnie’s traditional entrance on horseback, letting Metlova run out on stage almost unobtrusively instead.
The backdrop of singers was more impressive; this opera features a lot of small parts, allowing Castleton to give cameos to a bunch of their young singers, all sporting beards for the occasion. Andrew Stuckey showed a strong bass as Sonora; Kirk Dougherty was also firm as the bartender, Nick; Chris Bozeka was energetically coltish as Joe; and Christopher Besch, although vocally pale, turned Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent, into a real character, like something out of “Deadwood.”
Happy endings were something of a challenge for Puccini, and love, in many of his operas, is presented with an asterisk: Take the stunning love duet in “Madama Butterfly,” in which one of the players is actually stringing the other along. “Fanciulla” does feature requited love, and a happy ending, but Puccini has trouble making it feel like anything but a tragedy. The love duet is not fully satisfying, and the final tableau is less joyous than wistful, with Minnie and Dick riding off into the sunset sadly singing “Addio, mia California.” These are among the reasons this opera isn’t as often performed as other Puccini favorites; but it is an important work, and Castleton’s production is as good as you’re likely to see, and worth a trip. Just follow the signs.
“La Fanciulla del West” will be performed again on July 12 and 21 at the Castleton Festival, Castleton, Va.