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Scalia/Ginsburg & L'Heure Espagnole (7/11/15), Roméo et Juliette (7/10/15)

CASTLETON, VA
Castleton Festival

THE CASTLETON FESTIVAL experienced quite a blow when founding artistic director Lorin Maazel died while the 2014 season of operas, concerts and mentoring unfolded on the pastures of his Virginia country estate. The eminent conductor brought an obvious depth, and quite an aura, to the enterprise. Maazel's widow, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, who had been deeply involved in the organization from the start, has kept things going as artistic director/CEO. For the 2015 festival, Rafael Payare was appointed principal conductor; Fabio Luisi was brought in as guest conductor for an orchestral concert; a jazz academy was launched with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Festival Orchestra; and, at the heart of the 2015 season, three staged operas were presented.

The newsiest operatic item, Derrick Wang's Scalia/Ginsburg, received its premiere on July 11, on a double bill with Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole in the Festival Theatre before a sold-out house that included Justice Ginsburg. More a piece d'occasion than a likely candidate for frequent outings, this uneven, mostly comic work was written prior to the momentous outcome of the court's 2014–15 session. In the days just before the premiere, Wang tweaked the opera to insert references to those decisions, notably colorful phrases ("pure applesauce," "legalistic argle-bargle") from Scalia's dissents to the rulings on the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage.

Although the vocal writing and orchestration are assured, the score of Scalia/Ginsburg is short on distinctive personality: much of it was pastiche, with innumerable quotations from operas (when Scalia reveals that his friends call him Nino, the melodic line borrows, of course, from “Mi chiamano Mimì”) and bits of such well-worn tunes as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and even “The First Noel.”  Recitative passages had a particularly labored quality.  The simple plot starts with a Don Giovanni/Zauberflöte mash-up: a statue, looking like a Greco-Roman god and identified as “The Commentator,” comes to life in a Supreme Court chamber and announces that Scalia must undergo three trials to prove his worthiness after issuing so many dissents. 

The Commentator orders the room sealed before the tests, but Ginsburg bursts in anyway ("This is not the first time I've had to break through the glass ceiling") and offers to help a prickly Scalia. In due course, both justices sing extended arias that fill in details of their roots and core values; both become all the more sympathetic in the process.  Scalia is ultimately saved from damnation when he and Ginsburg declare, to a Bernstein-suggestive anthem, "We are different, we are one."  (A passage earlier involving a communication from Ginsburg's deceased husband threatens to take the op-era on a gooey turn, but is brief enough.)

In addition to uncannily conjuring up Scalia in physical terms, John Overholt revealed a sturdy tone and phrased with color and confidence. Ellen Wieser's thin, mostly agile soprano limited the sonic effectiveness of the Ginsburg character, but she brought tireless vitality and stylish flair to the role.  Likewise, Adam Cioffari compensated for a rather modest sound with animated phrasing as the Commentator. The staging, directed by Maria Tucci, moved along more or less effectively on Julia Noulin-Merat's basic, sufficiently atmospheric set. The orchestra responded neatly to the confident, sensitivity conducting of Salvatore Percacciolo.

(Earlier in the day, Ginsburg participated in a sold-out presentation, "Law in Opera." She commented charmingly on various contracts and other legal matters raised in operas, interspersed with excerpts from those works performed by current and former members of the Castleton Artists Training Seminar. Thomas Rafeld Cilluffo, made a particularly strong impression, revealing a bright, warm, agile tenor and abundant stylistic flourish in the “Venti scudi “duet from L'Elisir d'Amore with baritone Elliott Matheny. Cillufo sounded like he could move confidently into the Flórez repertoire before too long.)

L'Heure Espagnole, briskly staged by Tucci on Noulin-Merat's cute and economical set, benefited greatly from Percacciolo's finely sculpted guidance in the pit and a cast that revealed appreciation for the subtle inflections of the music and language alike. Tyler Nelson, making his entrance on bicycle and sporting some seriously slicked-back hair, sang up a storm as Gonzalve and exuded no end of icky charm. Kate Allen offered suave, if dry-toned, singing as Concepción. Ben Bloomfield was every inch the muleteer Ramiro, and produced a big, beefy tone to match. After a tentative start, Chris Frisco sang firmly, stylishly as the oblivious Torquemada. Tyler Simpson rounded things off with his ripe, steady bass-baritone and humorous flair as Don Inigo.

T HE SEASONED SIMPSON turned out to be the most memorable presence in a production of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (July 10), towering over the rest of the cast in terms of vocal weight and technical poise during his brief time onstage as Frère Laurent. Rebecca Nathanson acted the role of Juliette charmingly, but sounded indisposed; strained and crackly high notes took a toll during the first half of the evening. Mushy diction was another drawback. But her tone, with its mezzo-y richness in the low end, became smoother, the phrasing more and more assured by the latter half of the evening; the soprano did especially persuasive, affecting work in the final scene. As Roméo, Daniel Montenegro also encountered difficulty in the upper reaches, but achieved a certain elegance of line. Paul LaRosa's dynamic acting as Mercutio registered strongly, and there was an appealing warmth, if modest power, in his singing. The orchestra did generally polished work. On the podium, Payare didn't allow a speck of moss to grow on the score. His decidedly propulsive pacing meant a shortage of tenderness and nuance in a few spots, but guaranteed a strong theatrical edge to the performance from start to finish. For the most part, director Dorothy Danner likewise kept things lively on Teddy Moore's efficient set. —Tim Smith

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