Castleton Festival opens with ‘La Boheme’

Correction: An earlier version of this review of the Castleton Festival incorrectly said that tenor Brian Jagde was recently heard in this area as Don Jose in the Virginia Opera’s “Carmen.” In fact, he sang the role of Pinkerton in the Virginia Opera’s “Madama Butterfly.” This version has been corrected.

Anne Midgette
Classical Beat June 26, 2011

Lorin Maazel called it a historic event: the inauguration of a new opera house on his estate at Castleton Farms in Rappahannock County, Va., for the opening of his Castleton Festival on Saturday night. The evening’s real claim to historic status, though, was that it marked the first time Maazel had conducted Puccini’s “La Boheme” live, anywhere, ever.

Maazel and his wife, Dietlinde, continue to take their “mom and pop” festival — which they still largely fund themselves, to the tune of a couple of million dollars — to new heights. Castleton is a teaching festival: Young professionals come from around the world to live on the Maazel estate and work closely with the maestro and other mentors.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat. View Archive

Maazel’s renown is such that the quality of musicians is high. Saturday’s “Boheme” offered a strikingly sound young cast, and a full orchestra that with a combination of nervousness and ardor, augmented by the poured-concrete floor in the new “opera house,” often threatened to drown them out.

Castleton’s hallmark is its juxtaposition of the world-class and the homemade. One of the world’s greatest conductors is in the pit, but the “opera house,” from outside, looks like a farm building: a low-slung structure with white, tentlike walls.

Inside, it has a full-size stage and orchestra pit (no more reduced scores this summer), and enough lights to illuminate the Metropolitan Opera, but the audience sits on metal bleachers. The food is catered by Chef Gerard Pangaud, formerly of the Blue Rock Inn and Gerard’s Place, but on opening night the water concession stands were hastily set up at the last minute, and the guy who was supposed to bring the supply of small change was late, so some drinks were dispensed free.

The performance was not without its homemade touches, too, especially from the orchestra, which was audibly nervous at the start (with a couple of misplaced blats from keyed-up players). But it was also ardent and heartfelt — which are not adjectives one is used to pairing with a Maazel performance.

When I first heard Maazel conduct a Salzburg “Don Carlo” in the 1990s, I equated the experience to a BMW on Germany’s Autobahn: a piece of perfect engineering, sleek and smooth and ready to mow down anything in its path. On Saturday, his wonted technical brilliance was certainly all there, but in the service of a reading that was sometimes exuberant, sometimes heartfelt, sometimes out-of-balance and sometimes, from the brass, even raucous. (My proximity to the orchestra didn’t help; the concrete floor elevated the decibel level to rock-
concert status.) At Castleton, a conductor who was known for most of his career as something of a cold fish, brilliant but disliked by many musicians, seems to be learning, in his 80s, what it’s like to be loved.

This “Boheme” was centered on the Mimi of Joyce El-Khoury, who achieved the status of Castleton’s first homegrown star last year when she jumped in on opening night in Puccini’s “Trittico” as Suor Angelica. El-Khoury’s voice is a little light for these big Puccini roles — in last year’s “Trittico” she was originally cast in the ingenue role of Lauretta in “Gianni Schicchi” — but she compensates with outstanding acting ability. As Mimi, she shaded her voice with hints of breathiness to illustrate the character’s fatal tuberculosis, and she sang so as to bring across the meaning of every word.

The best aspect of William Kerley’s serviceable production, however, was the portrayal of the four bohemians in their garret. They came across, in this 1930s-era update, as antic and credible young men.

Brian Jagde, recently heard in this area as Pinkerton in the Virginia Opera’s “Madama Butterfly” but sounding more assured here, advanced from a somewhat colorless beginning as Mimi’s Rodolfo, to some beautiful singing, now nuanced, now ringing and forceful, in Act 4. Diego Silva will also play Rodolfo on at least one upcoming night. Corey Crider was vivid and vocally strong as Marcello; Jonathan Beyer sounded slightly pushed as Schaunard; and Sam Handley offered quiet depth as Colline, mourning with dignity over a leather coat that a viewer could easily believe was the most valuable object in the bohemians’ shabby studio.

Tyler Simpson got an appealing turn as their landlord, Benoit, played not as a caricature but as a decent, slightly obtuse middle-class guy, the kind of person the bohemians might become another 10 years down the road.

The direction slightly fell down when it came to Musetta. Suzanne Vinnik had a nice, clear voice and looked great onstage but didn’t quite take hold as a character. Indeed, Act 2, conceived as a big, pageantlike Paris street scene, was the weakest part of the production and performance. The stage just looked busy, with people crowded among Nicholas Vaughan’s somewhat loud set (cityscapes of Paris painted at quasi-cubistic angles on the walls).

And the chorus, made up of mainly college-age trainees who have come to work here as part of an auxiliary training program, had some notable issues of coordination with the orchestra that you’d never hear from a professional opera chorus. The children’s chorus, though, was large, eager and appropriately boisterous.

It all added up to a “Boheme” that was a pleasure to see (there are three more performances through July 16) and that does the region proud.

Can Castleton wean itself from Maazel’s sponsorship and turn into a viable nonprofit? Will audiences continue to be willing to pay gala prices (there’s another fundraiser at Strathmore on June 30, with Jeremy Irons and Helen Mirren) to hear young artists, however gifted? Whatever the answers, it’s proving to be an unexpected amount of fun following the festival to find out.

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