Friday night’s big storm blew through the Castelton Festival, creating drama that evening, and a cancelled performance on Saturday. But by 2 p.m. on Sunday the festival had an enormous, truck-sized generator hooked up and the air conditioning was running in the big performance tent, an oasis of cool atop a lovely little hill in Virginia’s horse country.
It had been several years since I was last there, for a performance of Britten’s Turn of the Screw in the pint-sized home theater attached to artistic director Lorin Maazel’s house. Yesterday’s performance of Rossini’s Barber of Seville was the first time I’ve been in the big tent, and I liked it very much. The festival has the feeling of a genuine festival, a high-spirited coming together in a beautiful spot for music. The views outside the tent, of rolling hills, giant round hay bales and a sultry, shimmering horizon of green in the distance make it clear why the rich and fortunate flock to this region, despite its isolation and ferocious summer heat.
The young cast gave a good show, albeit with a few tentative moments here and there, and perhaps a little too much stage business for the chorus. Otherwise, it was everything one wants from Rossini: Absurdity, speed and occasional pauses for emotional interjection. The set was a single piece on a turntable, representing Figaro’s shop, and the inside and out of Dr. Bartolo’s elegant home. The lighting was a bit sketchy here and there (the storm cues seemed a little odd) but the costumes, meticulous period pieces, flattered the cast.
Singing Count d’Almaviva, Tyler Nelson, a tenor with a small but appealing sound, was sometimes hard to detect in ensembles. But he has great musicality, and his performance of “Se il mio nome” in Act 1 demonstrated a refined sensibility and a voice capable of haunting tenderness. Tyler Simpson, as the lecherous Bartolo, is already a fully-fledged opera singer, and he has a fine comic sensibility, creating a muscular and manipulative Bartolo rather than the usual buffoonish and ridiculous caricature. Cecelia Hall’s Rosina was suitably impish, and if the coloratura isn’t quite fluid yet, the tone quality is attractive and the voice very promising. Both Jonathan Beyer as Figaro and Evan Hughes as Don Basilio had something pleasingly subversive in their slightly fey portrayals, and Beyer’s “Largo al factotum” set a high standard early in the performance for technically accomplished singing.
It’s good to see Castleton progressing so rapidly towards serious festival status. It’s a privilege to have Maazel in the pit on a Saturday afternoon in Washington’s backyard. The operas performed this season (Barber, Boheme and Carmen) are standard fare, and one misses the novelties that were present in earlier iterations of the festival. But the whole Castleton experience is a pleasure, a drive through beautiful country, an encounter with young artists and a leisurely return on back roads to Washington… through a landscape with a few thousand fewer trees than the last time I made the trip.
Credit: Leslie Maazel, courtesy the Castelton Festival