RAPPAHANNOCK COUNTY, Va., June 30, 2011 – The third annual Castleton Festival got off to a dazzling start this weekend past, featuring a complete performance of Puccini’s La Bohème Saturday evening followed by an energetic symphony concert on Sunday highlighting compositions of Georges Bizet. Conducted by Festival founder Lorin Maazel, the Sunday event concluded with excerpts from the composer’s forever-popular opera Carmen that included an appearance by special guest Denyce Graves.
DC’s most famous mezzo-soprano ever, Ms. Graves first established her place in the opera firmament with her definitive interpretation of Carmen in the mid-1990s. If anything, her distinctive, sultry voice has gained even more character since then, as evidenced during her appearance Sunday.
In solo and in combination with three superb young singers—tenor Richard Troxell (Don José), soprano Tharanga Goonetilleke (Micaëla), and bass-baritone Jonathan Beyer (Escamillo)—Ms. Graves sang superbly. Her classic, smoldering vocal take on Bizet’s cigarette-girl-become-smuggler clearly remains the definitive Carmen of our time. In particular, the high-wire tension of Ms. Graves’ performance of Carmen’s final, tragic encounter with José was still able to pack a considerable emotional wallop even though it was delivered without the colorful backdrop of a full production.
Her fellow soloists, happily, seemed well on their way to their own distinctive careers if Sunday’s appearance is any evidence. In a world of heroic opera tenor roles, the wimpy Don José remains on the bottom tier as the second-rate guy who just can’t ultimately seal the deal with the feisty Carmen. Mr. Troxell, however, lent conviction and dignity to this role with his clear, steady voice, creating, even in these excerpts, a considerable amount of sympathy for his character.
As his jilted fiancée, Micaëla, Ms. Goonetilleke also has a tough role. Micaëla, of course, is the good girl who also loses her guy, Don José, to the far more challenging Carmen—yet she’d still probably take him back. She breaks through her fear of the smugglers to deliver a message to José, bravely resolving to do it anyway, vowing “I’m telling myself that nothing can frighten me,” in her lovely signature aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante.”
While some critics find this music a bit conventional compared to the rest of the opera, Ms. Goonetilleke made it almost magical, singing it with a sweetly romantic, almost wide-eyed innocence.
Perhaps most impressive of all was Mr. Beyer’s brash Escamillo, the bullfighter who easily pries Carmen away from Don José. His classic entrance solo, known even to non-opera fans as the “Toreador Song,” has to make a bold, distinctive statement to be effective. Mr. Beyer started out just a bit tentatively, but then found his character’s swagger, delivering one of the better interpretations we’ve heard in recent years.
It was also a pleasure to hear the choristers and the young instrumentalists who make up this year’s edition of the Castleton Festival Orchestra. Already fine performers in their own right, they’ve already achieved, in their short Castleton stay, a surprising degree of professionalism and cohesiveness, no doubt due at least in part to the direction of Maestro Maazel who’s known to be a demanding taskmaster.
The orchestra opened the concert with a sprightly performance of Bizet’s refreshingly youthful Symphony in C. While the symphony doesn’t really break any new ground, it’s a marvelous synthesis of a variety of influences, including the melodic gifts of Schubert, the brashness of Berlioz, the charm of Mendelssohn, and Bizet’s own enthusiasm.
Despite a tentative entrance by the horns at the beginning of the symphony’s second movement, the orchestra generally played the symphony with wit, precision, and incisiveness. The musicians particularly distinguished themselves in the brisk scherzo and the rapid-fire finale, producing an excellent tone while hurling themselves forward into the music’s breakneck pace.
Ditto for the second set on the evening’s program, excerpts from Bizet’s “L’Arlésienne” suites 1 and 2, “incidental” music written by the composer for the stage play of the same name, roughly translated as “The Woman from Arles.”
After the first excerpt, a light yet gorgeous “Adagietto,” the ensemble launched boldly into the famous “Farandole,” a vigorous dance that cleverly combines a bold martial tune—later adapted as the melody for the Christmas song, “March of the Three Kings”—with a completely different whirling dervish of a tune first introduced by percussion and flutes. Once gain, the gradually increasing tempo of the piece can offer a challenge to any orchestra. But the Festival ensemble, under Mr. Maazel’s watchful eye, kept things under control right through to the dance’s dazzling final bars.
Rating: *** (Three stars.)
Castleton festivities are now under full sail, including a full array of opera performances, concerts, and recitals in and around the festival’s Rappahannock Country grounds. This weekend’s activities include a special Family Day (underway today) and an all-Gershwin concert on tap tomorrow in the all-new Festival Tent—which is indeed more comfortable and spacious than last year’s edition, as promised. Built now on a huge, solid concrete and block pad, this substantial tent should be around for awhile, perhaps to give way in the future to a major, permanent structure.
Other performances will take place at Castleton’s small, intimate “little theater,” in nearby Little Washington, and also, for the first time at Manassas swanky new Hylton Center. Additional bonus: the Route 211 area is also home to several Virginia wineries, such as Gray Ghost Vineyards just outside Amissville. If you’re attending a performance and have the extra time, plan to tour a couple wineries en route to your performance.
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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