One of the virtues of Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival has been its presentation of interesting, rarely seen operas. The first three seasons included works by Stravinsky, Falla, Weill, Ravel and most of the smaller operas by Benjamin Britten, all of which were enticement enough to make the trip to Rappahannock County. Some Puccini was thrown into the mix in the past two seasons, but the fourth season has turned that virtue of adventurous programming on its head, with productions of “The Barber of Seville,” “Carmen” and Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” that last part of a disturbing trend among opera companies and festivals.
If the gamble on staging the predictable was for sold-out houses, it did not pay off at the second performance of “Carmen” on Friday night, although the heat and violent storms may be keeping some listeners away. The enlarged Festival Theater now showcases the festival’s other virtue, with a pit large enough to seat the fine orchestra of young musicians Maazel hosts each summer. No need here for a reduced score, as is often the case in the smaller Barns at Wolf Trap, so that Bizet’s excellent scoring, with a full complement of winds and brass, provided a sweeping canvas for Maazel’s broad-stroked interpretation. The playing, a few false entrances aside, was crisp and coordinated, making the orchestral introductions to each act among the evening’s highlights.
The cast was typical for Castleton, young and certainly talented, and making up with enthusiasm for some lack of finishing . Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Metlova had a molasses kind of sound, thick and creamy, but forced her bottom range at times out of tune. Tenor Richard Troxell had the high notes and volume for Don Jose, but the shouted tone and occasional instability made one worry. Corey Crider, a Castleton veteran, was a smooth and blustery Escamillo, with some of the highest notes slipping just slightly out of control. The Micaela of Sasha Djihanian-Archambault was certainly feisty — the first time I have seen Micaela brawl her way out of the soldiers’ lewd advances in Act I — but did not have the seraphic vocal purity the role demands.
In the supporting cast, the members of the Act II quartet shone as a tightly coiled and balanced group — Darik Knutsen (Le Dancaire), Dominic Armstrong (Le Remendado), Rebecca Nathanson (Frasquita) and Nora Graham Smith (Mercedes) — if not always on their own. In fact, it was the opera’s large ensembles that most impressed, with solid and well-prepared contributions from the chorus of apprentice singers and a crackerjack children’s chorus from the Pied Piper Theatre. Only when the staging, by resident director William Kerley, required too much busy movement did the ensemble cohesiveness suffer.
Kerley updated the story to the 1930s or ’40s, with the cigar factory of Act I changed to an arms factory in the supertitles, and the women’s chorus costumed as Rosie the Riveter (costumes and sets by Thomas Rogers). The setting played down the Gypsy identity of Carmen and the card-playing girls, and the industrial walls of the set, run-down and gritty, did not seem complicated enough to warrant the decision to have three intermissions, which dragged the run time out to four hours.
Downey is a freelance writer.