Two major productions opened at Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival in Virginia’s Rappahannock Valley on Saturday. In the afternoon, in the festival’s exquisite, small Theater House, there was the exquisite, small “La Voix Humaine” in two versions — Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play paired with Francis Poulenc’s 1959 opera on Cocteau’s libretto. A large hunk of the audience then drove themselves the mile or so over to the festival’s main theater tent for a bite to eat and something to drink and to join the evening-only audience contingent for a performance of something grander, Verdi’s “Otello.”
It’s hard to believe that this is the first time anyone has had the imagination to pair the Cocteau and Poulenc on the same bill, but that seems to be the case. Together, with an intermission, the two “Voix” versions offer an hour and a half of wonderful theater and a vivid insight into how pure theater and opera differ. A woman and her lover of five years have broken up. He is marrying someone else tomorrow and calls her one last time. The entire play/opera is her side of the conversation. There is a cast of just two, the nameless “She” and the telephone. She feigns calm. She has taken a few too many sleeping pills. She has kept his letters and is reluctant to burn them as he wants her to. Who gets the dog? Is he really home or out at a restaurant? They get cut off. It is a party line, and someone is listening in on the conversation. The phone cord is their last common lifeline.
Dietlinde Turban Maazel — actress, the festival’s associate artistic director and Lorin Maazel’s wife — was “She” (or “Elle”) in the play, lithe, focused and riveting. Managing the “conversation” (in an English translation) with an unerring sense of timing, she projected the growing acknowledgment of fading intimacy with a quiet intensity that only occasionally rose above a hush, one moment trying to resurrect a faded closeness with wheedling coyness, the next sharply venting her frustration with the operator at getting cut off.
In the opera, creating such a sense of intimacy presents an entirely different set of challenges. There is a good-sized orchestra (conducted in this performance by Antonio Mendez) to sing over, and, to a great extent, the orchestration determines the dramatic timing. Soprano Jennifer Black and Mendez nailed it. Armed with a big, rich voice that is both flexible and accurate, Black managed to project intimacy by focusing on creating an aura of introspection. The staging gave her a little more opportunity for action than in the play, and, as is the nature of opera, her “Elle” (the opera was performed in the original French) was larger than life.
The evening’s “Otello” exploded in a wrenching emotional climax powered almost entirely by the quality of the orchestra (conducted by Maazel) and the singing. Except for Joyce El-Khoury, who could have brought tears as Desdemona merely by her stage presence (and she was no slouch vocally either), much of the rest of the cast seemed to rely on the stock gestures and postures of 150 years ago. But except for the chorus, which could have given a more exciting sense of anticipation and joy in the opening scene, the music was terrific. Javier Arrey’s Iago menaced and connived but did so subtly and with a voice so lovely to listen to that his scheming seemed all the more threatening. As Otello, Frank Porretta didn’t hesitate to call on some of the less-lovely sounds in his vocal repertoire as he cycled back and forth convincingly from love to fury and from trust to suspicion. Kirk Dougherty as Cassio, Humberto Rivera as Roderigo, and the rest of the supporting cast all managed to create vivid individual vocal personalities for their roles. But in the end it was Maazel whose timing and pacing made the emotional train wreck so inevitable.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.