CASTLETON, Va., July 8, 2014 – What is perhaps the most ambitious Castleton Festival season ever has continued to be haunted, at least a bit, by the absence of its founding father, veteran conductor-composer Lorin Maazel.
Sidelined for the most part from his usual strenuous schedule since early spring of this year—an absence attributed to “exhaustion”—Maestro Maazel has pared his international presence back dramatically while remaining largely on the conducting sidelines during this season’s festival.
He’s been out and about at his home base in rural northern Virginia at least a bit during behind the scenes preparation, however. And his expert hand has been in evidence in the preparation of the Festival’s two major opera presentations, Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
We’ll address “Don Giovanni” in this review, as we’ve been late to the musical table this year due to an already-planned vacation in Maine. The Castleton production made its debut this Saturday past in the Festival’s massive and quite impressive performance tent.
Saturday’s opening performance of “Giovanni” was notable for the generally high quality of its singing. But it was marred, at least in our opinion, by fairly wooden pacing and a bizarre plot “update” that had the Don spinning off a doppelgänger at the final act’s famous, hellish climax, leaving his double to enjoy a stint in hell while the Don himself got to laugh at Mozart’s moral conclusion from the sidelines as he carted off yet another willing female snack. Weird.
Much of the strangeness and stiffness here can likely be charged to director Giandomenico Vaccari who, in a lengthy and somewhat overly intellectual essay on the topic—distributed as a handout in the program—essentially makes a vaguely reasoned case that the libidinous Don, amoral though he may be, is in truth a crusader for liberty and the individual’s personal freedom to choose.
In short, Mr. Vaccari presents Don Giovanni as a freedom fighter, albeit a slightly eccentric one. It’s a bizarre logic we can’t quite parse, and its fallout is this moderately over-intellectualized and unsettling update of Mozart’s greatest operatic work.
As for the singing itself, it was generally above par save that—perhaps due to Mr. Vaccari’s direction—the characters, with a few exceptions, seemed somehow two-dimensional and static in an opera that is known for its genuinely uproarious moments.
This opera’s dynamic duo has always been the baritone-centric tag team of the lascivious Don and his comical and much put-upon sidekick Leporello. As Don Giovanni, baritone Javier Arrey was in generally fine voice though he seemed somehow distanced from his character, perhaps because his director had given him the ability to clone himself in extremis.
In turn, this may have thrown off his sidekick, Leporello, bravely but not always effectively portrayed and sung by bass-baritone Tyler Simpson. More physically imposing than Mr. Arrey, Mr. Simpson seemed ill at ease being intimidated by the Don, even though his character had to respect social class. But at times, this disparity seemed to affect the effectiveness of his singing as well.
In short, although we are dealing with a pair of fine operatic vocalists in these two key roles, the balance didn’t quite seem to happen, at least for this writer.
Continuing on the male side of the equation, tenor Tyler Nelson’s Ottavio hit the mark with the friendly opening night audience. He handled his role with feeling and authority, lending some authentic decisiveness to his character who is weakly drawn in the libretto. His clear voice and impeccable phrasing provided a much-needed center of elegance in this production.
Bass Nicholas Masters also added some variety in his interpretation of the much put-upon peasant bridegroom Masetto. Masetto doesn’t get a lot to sing, but he’s a key comic element in this opera and Mr. Masters played his character broadly but with some depth, giving Masetto enough rustic honor to allow him some dignity while still permitting him to slip into rustic buffoonery at a moment’s notice.
Bass-baritone Christopher Besch performed his small role as the before-and-after Commendatore efficiently and well, although we admit we felt a bit sorry for him in the finale, as he had to hold his stiff “statue” position for an incredibly long—and certainly fatiguing—time, something that may have sapped a bit of his vocal energy.
The ladies were actually more impressive than the men on opening night. Vocally, soprano Jennifer Black filled the difficult role of Elvira almost flawlessly. Her richly textured voice had substantial support, and her phrasing and diction were quite good. However, as an actress, she seemed a bit stiff and uncertain of her character in this role.
On the other hand, as Anna, the Don Giovanni target that gets this opera’s plot rolling, soprano Chloé Moore was dramatic and electric and at times far more forceful than we’ve seen this character interpreted before.
She has a powerful, commanding instrument and, in many ways, she provided the strength and the rage to this production that Ms. Black’s Elvira was often lacking. On occasion, her dramatic approach caused some strain to show in her voice. But if she can get this tendency under control, audiences might soon discover her to be a major new star in the opera firmament.
But our surprise pick-hit of the evening was mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider and we think the opening night audience would concur with our opinion. Ms. Crider’s sprightly, strong, and at times totally clueless Zerlina was perhaps the most fully realized, and indeed lovable character on stage during Saturday’s performance.
Ms. Crider possesses a strong, flexible, expressive instrument that she put to good use during the many twists and turns in her part. But she also proved to be a superb stage actress, getting into her part in the way others did not, embodying her character’s silliness and quirks but proving a formidable woman in her own right.
The youthful Castleton Orchestra performed crisply if a bit laboriously under the baton of Salvatore Percacciolo who ended up filling in for Maestro Maazel.
The staging, a sort of abstract, movable Parthenon painted in that still unfathomably fashionable Euro-gray that’s our first clue as to the decadence and despair to be evoked by the subject matter, was at least functional. But it also proved to be a good backdrop for a surprisingly effective, fiery finale.
Costuming, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more haphazard or duller, save, perhaps, for Zerlina’s slinky, eye-catching and doubtless symbolic red dress, an outfit Ms. Crider’s Zerlina was able to use to great effect.
Rating: ** (2 out of 4 stars)
Castleton’s “Don Giovanni” will be performed two more times during the Festival, at 7 p.m. on July 12 and July 18 in the Festival tent.
For tickets, information, and directions, visit the Castleton Festival website. Tickets range from $20-120 and, as of this writing, may be more plentiful on for the July 18 performance.