Since it opened three years ago, the Castleton Festival, which ended its 2011 season this past weekend, has established itself as an odd but worthwhile hybrid of training program and big-ticket festival.
Its cachet is Lorin Maazel, the world-renowned 82-year-old conductor who bankrolls the event on his 600-acre Virginia estate to the tune, this year, of a couple of million dollars, and whose reputation as a brilliant but ice-cold musician is being eroded by the avuncular, warm and fuzzy persona he’s donned for Castleton, where he conducted Ravel’s beguiling children’s-book opera, “L’Enfant et les Sortileges” (The Child and the Spells) on Saturday afternoon.
But Castleton’s international ambitions — this year’s festival included runouts to Toronto, and next year’s “Barber of Seville” will have its premiere this fall in Beijing — are putting big demands on its young artists.
This year’s festival included a couple of Puccini operas, “Porgy and Bess” excerpted in concert, several other orchestra programs and two other double bills of one-act operas, including the Ravel, paired with Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Seven Deadly Sins,” which ended its run Saturday.
This may or may not be too much to expect of musicians; whatever the reason, the musical level at Castleton this year seemed a notch lower than in years past: very good young-artist work, but not quite incandescent, something epitomized by the oddly pedestrian opening of “L’Enfant” where the oboes sounded less meandering than plodding.
At first glance, “The Seven Deadly Sins” and “L’Enfant et les Sortileges” make strange bedfellows: one is a biting social satire, the other a children’s tale with foretastes of Maurice Sendak (the text is by the French author Colette). Weill’s piece is an anti-American dream: A pretty girl from the sticks makes her way through various iterations of the big time, enacting all seven of the titular sins — presented, in William Kerley’s production, by a pretty blonde in American bunting, holding them up like cue cards — as she goes. Ravel’s opera is the story of a naughty boy who wreaks havoc on his nursery and then as punishment is visited by all the objects and creatures he harmed: the grandfather clock he broke, the cat whose tail he pulled.
On paper, to be sure, there are a number of parallels. Both works are moral tales. Both are products of the same period (the Ravel had its premiere in 1925; the Brecht-Weill, in 1933). Both are adeptly, strikingly orchestrated. Both draw on contemporary musical styles: a foxtrot, for example, appears as “Anger” in the Hollywood studio scene of “The Seven Deadly Sins,” and as a duet for the broken china teapot and teacup in “L’Enfant et les Sortileges.” Both were choreographed, at their premieres, by George Balanchine (who was 21 when he worked on Ravel’s opera as the ballet master in Monte Carlo).
This last similarity is certainly no more than an interesting nugget of trivia; in this production, Faye Driscoll’s choreography played a negligible role even in “The Seven Deadly Sins,” which is conceived as a “ballet chante” for a solo female singer (here, Kate Mangiameli), a dancer (Casey Loomis) and a male vocal quartet.
And even the other connections don’t bridge the bracing differences in these two pieces, Weill’s savvy and brassy and in-your-face, Ravel’s a shifting dream world of flowing colors evoking the ambiguities and startling discoveries of childhood.
“L’Enfant” is also better suited to young artists than “The Seven Deadly Sins,” which has been a vehicle for scene-chewing singers since Lotte Lenya gave its premiere. Mangiameli did a noble job but represented the callow-youth aspect of the character more than her depravity, resulting in a wholesome, even sanitized, rendering.
But Kerley made this part of his concept. While the alter-ego protagonists, singer Anna and dancer Anna, set out to seek their fortunes through America’s leading cities, the male quartet represented their family back home in Louisiana: stereotypical trailer trash down to the obese mother in curlers and a diaphanous hot-pink housedress wafting over her flab, singing in a resonant bass-baritone voice (Tyler Simpson). Watching TV on their sofa, consuming reams of fast food, this (contemporary) family took on more dramatic interest than the (slightly dated) action of the Annas, to the point of threatening to eclipse them. It was clever but a shade closer to sitcom than satire. Levi Hammer, one of Maazel’s associate conductors here, did a generally impressive job leading the orchestra.
The Ravel was another world. Nicholas Vaughan, who provided sets and costumes for both works, created a nursery of outsized furniture; but since all of it was covered in the same splotchy aqua pattern, it was hard to distinguish one piece of furniture from another — a deficit when the furniture started coming to life. Vaughan’s costumes, however, were strong: the little boy in period short pants, beautifully, childishly acted by Nora Graham Smith; the tree frog (Tyler Nelson) using a giant lollipop as a kind of flyswatter to trap insects in lieu of a sticky tongue; or the soigne cats in their erotic duet, he in a velvet smoking jacket (Ricardo Rivera), she (Jessica Klein) in a slinky evening gown. Arithmetic appeared as an athletic coach, with Castleton’s eager children’s chorus dressed as a soccer team, sporting different numbers. The Mother (Margaret Gawrysiak, fresh from a turn as Mrs. Lovett at Wolf Trap’s “Sweeney Todd” the night before) appeared first as an unapproachable giant, wheeled out on high casters above the stage, and, at the end, redemptively, on a human scale to embrace her repentant son.
Smith didn’t actually sing; Cecelia Hall, sidelined with a leg injury, sang with striking beauty from the pit while Smith mimed the actions above. The other vocal standout, in a generally strong group, was Tharanga Goonetilleke, who sang the roles of both a chair and a rapturous Fairy Princess (the child has torn apart the book she appears in, and therefore condemned her to an unsure fate); Sungji Kim was a little muted in the showcase role of Fire.
Maazel conducted with his usual hair-trigger sensitivity. But be it his newly eager attitude or the vagaries of Castleton’s new festival pavilion, the balances seemed slightly off: the brass heavy, the winds a touch shrill. Impressive, but still a little off-balance: it was an appropriate metaphor for a promising festival that continues to find its feet in a competitive market.