Opera Review: Performances of Stravinsky and Falla close the Castleton Festival

INSPIRED SLAPSTICK: Puppets' antics brought laughter from the audience during the performance of Falla's
INSPIRED SLAPSTICK: Puppets' antics brought laughter from the audience during the performance of Falla's "Master Pedro's Puppet Show." (Nicholas Vaughan)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010

If Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival opened this summer on a grand scale -- with Puccini's "Trittico" on the first weekend in July -- it closed with the intimacy that was the festival's original hallmark. The final production, which opened on Friday and ran for three performances through the festival's conclusion Sunday, was a double bill of Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" and Falla's "Master Pedro's Puppet Show," staged in the charming and diminutive home theater Maazel built on his private estate for his own amusement.

The amusement is everybody's now. The Castleton Festival is a small gem. There are a lot of festivals out there that specifically offer experience to young professionals, but not all of them offer intensive one-on-one interaction with the likes of Maazel, and the caliber of artists he's drawn to Castleton reflects his pull. It isn't only young unknowns, either: Jennifer Koh, the concert violinist, played in the pit for "L'Histoire du Soldat," while the cellist Han-Na Chang tested her mettle as a conductor, quite successfully, in the Falla.

Small-scale opera doesn't have to feel low-budget. William Kerley's strikingly independent productions rode on strong performances, creative staging and choreography rather than high-tech sets. Of course Castleton is not, in fact, low-budget. Though it retains a charmingly homemade flavor, it draws on Maazel's private funds -- to the extent of feeding and housing the young artists for the summer. This is by no means a criticism, rather an accolade: What better place to put your money than into creating worthwhile art and giving a boost to the next generation?

The young musical talent was predominantly in the orchestra pit for this double bill, which featured Stravinsky as strong and solid as if hewn in stone -- almost oddly solid for this music -- under Maazel, and Falla lithe and ingratiating under Chang. There was plenty of talent onstage, too; in the Stravinsky it consisted of three actors and a dancer, entering in a gray-coated, floor-stamping cadre and then splintering off so that three of the performers moved fluidly into different roles around Sean Donovan's impressive, beleaguered, sometimes manic Soldier.

In this interpretation, the piece smacked of Brecht, its fantastical elements more bitingly sarcastic than the stuff of simple fable. It wasn't updated, yet an awareness of the contemporary informed it, as when Donovan's Soldier, transformed into a wealthy man through the agency of the Devil (played with inspired mimicry in alternation by Philip Taratula and Mike Mikos), launched into an inspired, revival-tent style exhortation about the benefits of his wares: Suddenly, it seemed credible that this sad-sack figure could actually succeed in business without really trying.

There was also genuine lyricism in Part 2, when the Soldier's cure of the ailing Princess came about through beautiful choreography. The Princess (Toni Meleas) kept taking brief flight in arabesques or lyrical lifts, only to sink back in a "Petrouchka"-like sag, again and again. Faye Driscoll, the choreographer, may well have been making allusion to some elements in the score that were reminiscent of this famous earlier Stravinsky ballet. It added up to a substantial piece with action that for once lived up to the strengths of the score.

The Falla, unlike "L'Histoire," is a rarely done curio; here, it became a delight. This short opera sets the famous scene from "Don Quixote" in which the protagonist gets so involved watching a puppet show that he jumps up and does battle with the puppet knights.

Paul La Rosa showed a lovely voice as Don Quixote, but its lyricism didn't quite succeed in trumping the cornucopia of delightful action that preceded it, largely thanks to the efforts of the Puppet Kitchen. This New York-based troupe succeeded in getting an adult audience to laugh at puppet slapstick that was, for once, genuinely funny -- ranging from crude Punch-and-Judy style wallops to journeys depicted with puppet silhouettes traveling through what looked like faded tourist brochures of the Alps.

Add Richard Pittsinger as an outstanding boy soprano, fully able to live up to a big narrator's role, and you had something that it's a shame has already ended. One only hopes it will return next year -- or that Maazel will come up with something equally diverting to replace it.

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