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Otello (7/13/13), La Fanciulla del West (7/12/13), La Voix Humaine (7/13/13)
Otello at Castleton, with Porretta and Arrey
© E. Raymond Boc 2013
For its fifth anniversary, the Castleton Festival went for guns and gloria. Filling the 650-seat Festival Theatre were large-scale productions of Otello and La Fanciulla del West, both benefiting from the keenly sensitive conducting of festival founder Lorin Maazel. The handsome Peter Hall production of the Verdi work, updated convincingly to Napoleonic times, was directed by Lynne Hockney with a vivid touch. Stepping into the role a few days before the July 13 opener, Frank Porretta compensated for a dry sound with admirable clarity of articulation, intensity of expression and acting that persuasively conveyed Otello's unhinged state as glory and love slipped from his grasp. Joyce El-Khoury, a festival favorite, sounded constricted and cool early on but went on to give a stirring performance as Desdemona, vocally and dramatically. The soprano summoned remarkable power, including terrific chest tones, for the Act III confrontation with Otello, then spun out ethereal, melting lines in the willow song and Ave Maria. Except in fortissimo utterances, which tended to be more shouted than truly sung, Javier Arrey hit the spot as Iago. His warm sound and a lieder-like suavity of phrasing helped make the villain sound doubly seductive, though the baritone's reliance on sneering facial expressions grew tiresome. Kirk Dougherty offered a bright tone as Cassio, Megan Gillespie a rather harsh, vibrato-heavy one as Emilia. The chorus shook the place in the opening storm scene with hearty, well-focused outbursts. Maazel maintained a taut underlying pulse, but with great rhythmic flexibility for the most introspective passages, letting the orchestral coda to the Ave Maria, for example, unfold with sublime, time-stopping delicacy. The festival orchestra of budding professionals responded to the conductor in fully communicative, mostly spotless fashion.
There was a real-life, last-minute rescue-by-soprano for the Fanciulla production on July 12. Ekaterina Metlova, who had sung Minnie for the opening six nights earlier, came down with a throat infection and could only mime the action onstage (very plausibly). Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs made it to Castleton from New York mere hours before curtain and sang the title role from the pit. She met the score's most taxing demands with sturdy top notes that contained a glint of steel, but she was even more impressive producing warm, subtle nuances for the gentler moments. Jonathan Burton, as Dick Johnson, sang with an attractively beefy tone that frayed only when pushed hard at the top. Paul LaRosa was every inch the smarmy Rance, except for a lightweight tone. A good degree of vocal warmth and dynamic phrasing emerged from Andrew Stuckey (Sonora), Dougherty (Nick), Christopher Besch (Ashby) and Davone Tines (Larkens and Billy Jackrabbit). The chorus did not always maintain discipline but sang ardently. Maazel, drawing potent efforts from the orchestra, seemed to revel in the harmonic richness and atmospheric coloring of the score. He ensured startling drama and energy at the end of the second act, ethereal shimmers for the close of the others. Davide Gilioli's evocative sets and costumes and Giandomenico Vaccari's finely detailed direction added to the production's assets (the wayward snowfall effect in Act II not so much).
The festival also offered an absorbing double dose of La Voix Humaine — Cocteau's play and the Poulenc opera it inspired — astutely directed by Maria Tucci and sleekly designed by François-Pierre Couture, presented in the inviting 138-seat Theatre House. The play was incisively performed (in English) on July 13 by the accomplished actress Dietlinde Turban Maazel, the conductor's wife and cofounder/associate director of the festival. The opera featured Jennifer Black in a performance that showed off her ample, quite creamy voice and her ability, with a minimum of gesture, to get into the soul of a hapless character. Conductor Antonio Méndez did not always keep everything on track, but he proved a sensitive partner nonetheless.
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