Castleton, Va, July 10, 2011 – Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival ramped up the action again this weekend past with a bracingly inventive double bill of one-act operas in its new-and-improved Festival Tent. Saturday evening, a near-capacity audience was treated to highly professional—and relatively rare—performances of Kurt Weill’s anti-capitalist satire, The Seven Deadly Sins (1933) and Maurice Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges (1925).
Both operas—ballet-operas, really—were expertly sung by Mr. Maazel’s talented cast of young singers and dancers. They were accompanied by the equally youthful Castleton Festival Orchestra, which handled both tricky, music hall-style scores with the dash and panache of a full-time ensemble.
With a libretto by longtime collaborator and fellow Marxist Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill’s short opera is an odd amalgam of opera and dance, oddly constructed to allow the estranged wives of Weill and his patron—one a singer and one a dancer—to star simultaneously in the lead role of Anna.
Young Anna is dispatched by her impoverished and ill-behaved backwoods family to the big city (several of them actually) to earn them enough money to build a house. Anna does what she can, but is corrupted en route by the evils of capitalism, depicted here metaphorically as each of Roman Catholicism’s seven deadly sins: sloth, pride, anger, gluttony, lust, avarice, and envy. Her decline and moral fall are ironically mirrored in the increasingly disgusting behavior of her family.
A minimalist, moderately modernized production, Castleton’s version of Deadly Sins places our heroines on a central stage platform while her family carries on its antics to the front and sides below.
On Saturday, Anna 1 was crisply and expertly sung by soprano Kate Mangiameli, while her dancer-doppelganger Anna 2 was imaginatively danced by a winsome Toni Melaas.
Anna’s disgusting family was sung by a male quartet—Tyler Nelson, Dominic Armstrong, Tyler Simpson, and Michael Weyandt—all costumed to resemble a morbidly obese tribe of swamp-country yahoos. Particularly funny was booming bass-baritone Tyler Simpson as the simply awful Mom.
Each of the singers seemed to have a gift for interpreting the varying moods of Weill’s cabaret-style score. Particular highlights in this production include the family’s male quartet members slipping easily into “Gluttony’s” surprising barbershop quartet—perhaps a first in the world of opera—and the two Anna’s elaborate song and dance tableaux that mimes the fiscal and romantic complexity of indulging wholeheartedly in “Lust.” Levi Hammer conducted both orchestra and singers with the kind of low-key skill and accuracy that this score requires.
The only discordant note in this production was the questionably clever outfitting of two members of Anna’s dissolute family in t-shirts and sweatshirts that firmly linked them to Sarah Palin and the Tea Party—the entirely unfair implication being that only the Great Unwashed would support either.
On the other hand, this opera is, after all, a left-wing satire of a system Marxists first thought was on the way out in the 1930s. Tweaking this production’s look and feel to reflect our own perilously similar economic era can perhaps be viewed in context as a valid contemporary update of the material.
Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, though written earlier than the Weill, oddly anticipates the structure and effects of the latter in that it adapts American pop and jazz riffs, circa the 1920s, into its ever-changing musical mélange.
Roughly translated into meaningful American English, the opera’s title might read something like The Kid vs. the Magical Spells. Using a libretto penned by the legendary French short fiction writer Collette, L’enfant is a grimly Grimm-like fairy tale in which the animate and inanimate objects injured or destroyed by a very bad little boy all come to life to wreak revenge on the child. It’s nasty and funny at the same time, a bit like what we might have called “black comedy” in the 1960s and 1970s.
As the opera opens, The Child, directed by his mom (Maman) to buckle down and do his homework, rebels by smashing a tea set, beating a pair of chairs, tormenting a couple of pets, and scattering the embers of a fire that warms the room. But the joke is on him as these objects, along with the entire forest and its creatures all rise up to teach him a lesson he’ll never forget.
Like the Weill opera, Ravel’s short, two-part work combines song and dance into its numerous characterizations and does so in a way that’s simultaneously charming and threatening, much as in the classic, old-style European fairy tale tradition later adopted in the best animated work of Disney and Pixar.
Ravel’s score is magical, incorporating his brilliant ear for color along with his affection and admiration for American jazz and Broadway musicals. The music veers from dissonance to impressionism, to awkward ballets and dance hall struts.
While clearly on a budget, Castleton’s production of the Ravel was nonetheless brilliantly inventive, its costuming and sets by Nicholas Vaughan outrageously yet whimsically over the top as they conjure up a Gallic-flavored “Calvin and Hobbes” style dream world.
Perhaps the niftiest song and dance ensembles of the evening were the Chinese cup’s (Valerie Nelson’s) and teapot’s (Diego Silva’s) acidic little fox-trot and the brilliant, wordless “Meow duet” between the tomcat (Ricardo Rivera) and his intended (Jessica Klein). A hat tip as well to the Little Old Man (Dominic Armstrong) who unleashes a brigade of singing numerals upon the startled and mathematically-challenged Child.
The cast of L’enfant is quite large. However, by employing both apprentice and newly-minted professional singers and dancers, the Castleton Festival was able to mount this sparkling little gem without incurring ruinous costs, giving its area audience a real treat—a witty show that most have likely never chanced to see. (As far as we can remember, the last area performance of L’Enfant was a semi-staged version by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra quite a few seasons ago.)
In total, L’enfant’s Castleton ensemble includes a veritable army of youthful talent. There are twenty-one distinct roles in the work, although some of them can be and are doubled.
Added to the solo roles are an adult choir of sheep and a children’s the aforementioned numerals as well as the symbols for math math operations. Supplementing the substantial pit orchestra are a bevy of special-effects instruments including a wind-machine and an incongruous but ingeniously-deployed slide whistle. No matter what’s transpiring on or off stage, there’s never a dull moment in this production as surprise after surprise unfolds like clockwork.
For Saturday’s production of L’enfant, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Hall was originally slated to star in the central role of the naughty Child. And indeed she did, after a fashion.
The Child’s role is a physically vigorous one. Unfortunately, Ms. Hall seriously injured her knee during rehearsal. The solution: to position the disabled singer (who’s already on the mend but on crutches) in the orchestra pit, replacing her onstage with her understudy, Nora Graham Smith, who acted and lip-synched the role. Meanwhile, the fully prepared Ms. Hall sang her role from the pit so clearly, accurately, and passionately that you could scarcely perceive the switch.
For her part, Ms. Canfield mimed the role onstage without a hitch, and the remaining cast made sure the show proceeded almost as if nothing had happened. We’ve occasionally witnessed similar situations in expensive professional productions—most notably Washington National Opera’s fairly recent Siegfried in which the lead singer lost his voice. But to see a less-experienced ensemble pull this off with such a high level of professionalism speaks well of them all.
Of course, the entire Ravel happening benefited by the cool presence of Maestro Maazel who conducted the performance. It didn’t hurt that he’s conducted it before, not to mention recording it, too. As a result, these performances of Ravel’s opera, in spite of its near-disaster in rehearsal, may very well prove to be the surprise highlight of this already-promising 2011 Castleton Festival.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars.)
Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins and Maurice Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges will be repeated on July 15 at 7:30pm and July 23 at 2pm in the Castleton Festival Tent. For complete information on the festival, including tickets and directions (be sure to consult them!), visit the Castleton Festival’s website. For Hylton Center performances and directions, visit the Hylton Center’s website or call 703-993-7759.
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