Lorin Maazel, Fostering Artistry at Home

The comedic opera "Albert Herring" is rehearsed last Thursday by the Autumn Castleton Residency at Castleton Farms, Va.
The comedic opera "Albert Herring" is rehearsed last Thursday by the Autumn Castleton Residency at Castleton Farms, Va. (By F & E Schmidt)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008

CASTLETON, Va. -- The building looks like the setting for an opulent '80s television drama: stucco and lavish plantings; the driveway that sweeps up to the entrance; the cat crouching by the double glass doors. Inside, the decor does not dispel that sensation. You pass life-size wax figures of Tchaikovsky (reading in an armchair) and Bach (poised at the keyboard) at the top of the stairs. Then you enter a perfect miniature theater, paneled in warm wood that wraps you in sound, packed to capacity with 100 to 150 elegantly clad people. And only on TV, you might think, would a scene like this contain world-class music.

It's quite real. This is Lorin Maazel's private opera house. Some men of a certain age -- Maazel is 78 -- might unwind by kicking back in their home theaters. Maazel's idea of a good time, though, amid his busy conducting schedule, is staging chamber opera with a handpicked group of young artists from around the world.

So Saturday night, the music wafting from the pit and the stage was Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring," sounding about as good as it is going to sound. The flicking baton drew out details that the 12 instrumentalists, London's Royal College of Music students, might have only dreamed they had in them. The singers were robust and sure.

And they will get to do it again in July, when Maazel and his wife, the German actress Dietlinde (Turban) Maazel, launch a new music festival with four fully staged Britten operas, the fruits of four past encounters. There will be master classes. There will be coachings. All the artists live on the Maazels' 550-acre property. And apart from the fruits of several fundraising galas -- including Friday night's extravaganza at the Kennedy Center with Marvin Hamlisch -- Maazel is paying for most of it himself.

Considering Maazel's reputation over more than six decades conducting the world's most important orchestras, tremendous generosity and commitment to young artists is a little startling. Maazel is often described as formidable and brilliant, but not kindly and warm. This could be honest error on the part of those doing the describing, bolstered by tales from his various pre-New York Philharmonic tenures -- at the Cleveland Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony, the Vienna State Opera and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich -- of mercurial behavior and willful interpretations.

But the story of the Chateauville Foundation, which the Maazels founded in 1997 -- the organization behind the festival -- appears to be unequivocally sunny. For several years, the theater limited its offerings to intimate chamber performances by world-class artists -- Mstislav Rostropovich, Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman -- but Dietlinde Maazel notes it was constructed with an orchestra pit: "It was my husband's dream to do chamber opera." That dream came true with Britten's "Turn of the Screw" in 2006; since then, there have been two others: "The Rape of Lucretia" in 2007 and Britten's arrangement of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" this spring.

Why Britten? Maazel told The Washington Post's Tim Page in 2006 that Britten was one of the 20th century's four greatest composers. But Dietlinde Maazel says the selection was more practical: Britten wrote more chamber operas than many composers. "It seemed like [these operas] perfectly fit what we were trying to do," she said, "and our pit couldn't really handle more players." They will construct a larger theater here with a pit for 25 musicians; zoning restrictions will limit the seating capacity to about 200.

It was certainly a good fit for the singers Friday. "Albert Herring" can seem like a lot of opera about not very much -- it's an affectionate satire of provincial British village life -- but in this straightforward production by William Kerley, with full-throated singers able to sustain the many ensembles, it made for a very enjoyable evening. Leading the cast was the established young soprano Jennifer Check, whose big voice and big stage presence (she is becoming a natural ham) made much of the role of the local dignitary, Lady Billows. Kristin Patterson had a startlingly rich mezzo as her sidekick, Florence Pike; Alexander Tall showed a warm baritone as Mr. Gedge, the sententious vicar; Tammy Coil sang with engagement and amber warmth as the local girl Nancy; and Brian Porter pulled off Albert's transformation from mama's boy to potential ladies' man with elan.

It didn't hurt that the orchestra, though its players are not all yet pros, was telling such a compelling story under Maazel's leadership. From young artists, this kind of hair-trigger control can elicit some very happy results.

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