Young cast of Puccini's "Il Trittico" makes Castleton Festival worth the trip

LOVE TRIANGLE: Noah Stewart brought passion to his role in
LOVE TRIANGLE: Noah Stewart brought passion to his role in "Il Tabarro," also featuring Margaret Gawyrisiak and Sam Handley. (By Victoria Aschheim)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

On Friday night, Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival began its second season by demonstrating two things. One: It isn't yet a capital-E Event. At the start of the holiday weekend, there were plenty of seats available for Puccini's "Il Trittico" (The Triptych) in the new 400-seat festival tent.

Two: It should be. Friday's performances were terrific. You don't expect, from what is essentially a training festival, shows that eclipse many professional opera companies; that is, however, what these young singers offered. And of course the 80-year-old Maazel's conducting was world-class.

There's something slightly incongruous about Castleton. It's a mom-and-pop festival hosted by the Maazels on their private estate in Rappahannock County, Va. Maazel and his wife, Dietlinde, welcomed young artists for several weeks of workshops, coaching and performances, then greeted Friday's gala opening-night audience with a formal dinner served in long intermissions between each of the three one-act operas. (The performance, as a result, ran for more than five hours.)

Maazel has a reputation as a slightly forbidding, formidably smart figure who does not suffer fools lightly. And the video of him introducing the festival that was played before Friday's performance felt strangely amateurish and avuncular. After years of expecting people to come to hear him, Maazel is learning that you have to reach out when you go into the presenting field yourself.

It helps to give people a reason to come. And this "Trittico" is certainly worth the 60-mile drive from Washington. It's not perfect. Nicholas Vaughan's set for "Il Tabarro" (The Cloak), the first of the triptych's three operas, looked like a barge as designed by Ikea. And even with reduced forces, the fine young orchestra (which included a synthesizer) tended to overpower the singers in the big tent -- though Maazel led crisply, bringing out individual motifs with the clarity of printed sentences.

More to the point, though, the festival has assembled a cast of strong singing actors. Often, this is a polite way of saying they can't sing very well; here, it means they showed an old-school involvement with text and story as well as with the technical sides of their assignments.

In the love triangle of "Il Tabarro," Noah Stewart as the workman Luigi was incandescent from the moment he stepped onstage, his white-hot talent and the conviction with which he sang every note overriding the need for some technical work on his high range. The uncontrollable passion between him and his boss's wife, Giorgetta (Jessica Klein), was not only credible but palpable.

In his presence Klein lost some of her initial aggressive perkiness and unleashed a penetrating soprano, while Nicholas Pallesen gave a gently sung, if somewhat generic, account of the cuckolded husband Michele, who ends up killing his wife's lover. ("Trittico" excels at over-the-top endings.)

Every bit as strong as Stewart was Corey Crider in the title role of "Gianni Schicchi," who sang with a big, easy, expressive baritone that matched his character's swagger. Joyce El-Khoury, as his daughter Lauretta, was also excellent. She managed to give a completely convincing performance of "O mio babbino caro," the most famous tune of the night, simultaneously wrapping her father around her finger, giving her fiance, Rinuccio (the rather nasal Matthew Plenk), an emphatic thumbs-up behind her back, and floating out the gorgeous tune with aplomb.

"Schicchi" was altogether a delight. Musically the strongest of the three works, and the evening's sole comic relief, it got an amusing update from Castleton's resident director, William Kerley (one of the bequests in the rich uncle's will, a mule, was here rendered as a life-size Damien Hirst-style artwork, preserved in formaldehyde). The whole cast was strong. The trio of female relatives surrounding Schicchi, helping him to prepare to masquerade as the dead uncle so he can forge a new will, was meltingly gorgeous. Tharanga Goonetilleke, who sang in all three pieces, was a particular standout; Margaret Gawrysiak, who was also Frugola in "Tabarro," showed a powerful voice.

It's unusual to offer "Schicchi" as the second opera of "Trittico," and the evening would have felt complete after it. (Castleton is indeed breaking up the trilogy over two days in some future performances.) "Suor Angelica" is a tragic ending, but also makes a difficult dessert. Set in a convent, it has no male voices; its first half consists mainly of nuns acting cute, and its second half consists of some of the biggest and most heart-wrenching singing in the Italian repertory. On Friday, there was additional drama when Rebekah Camm, the scheduled lead, proved unable to perform; El-Khoury stepped in, though the part calls for a far heavier voice.

You certainly wouldn't want to hear El-Khoury sing this part every day. But I am glad I heard her sing it Friday. The expressivity and musicality she brought to the role more than made up for the fact that it was a couple of sizes too big for her. Singing opposite Maria Isabel Vera as the Zia Principessa, the aunt who has locked her in a convent as punishment for bearing an illegitimate child (Vera has a huge, slightly unsteady but very promising voice), she helped bring the standoff between the women alive.

Angelica learns that her child has died, decides to join him in death, and then realizes in anguish, after ingesting poison, that suicide is a mortal sin and begs the Virgin Mary for a sign of divine forgiveness. It's one of the most blatant examples of emotional manipulation in the repertory, and El-Khoury fully rose to the challenge, aided by Kerley's production. At the very end, a portal opened in the back wall and Angelica's small son appeared to his dying mother in a ray of light, while half the remaining audience -- the die-hards who had stayed to the end of the five-hour evening -- wept.

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