Opening the 2014 season, with Lorin Maazel scheduled to conduct, word came down from il Maestro himself that this production of Madama Butterfly was the “real thing.” The place was packed and the air was electric in Castleton Festival’s gigantic performance tent. (Certainly this was a different kind of electricity than had met me two years ago when El Derecho swept through mid-performance, knocking out power and bringing down power lines, inspiring Maazel and Company to gather by flashlight around a piano and deliver a most magical evening of entertainment and artistry.) Maazel was right, this show is the real thing. Like all performances at Castleton it’s a journey, but if you linger you are well rewarded.
The setting was picture-perfect Saturday, and the skies promised to stay blue as we headed out from D.C. and wound our way along country roads through the rambling hills of Rappahannock County. For first-timers, it seems impossible that opera can take place in the middle of cow pastures. As you pile out of your car, the Festival’s supernumeraries, donkeys, ponies, burros, and a zebra, are there to greet you.
Don’t get me wrong, Castleton begs to be taken seriously — but leisurely. It’s a campus for young artists to continue their training and launch their careers besides world-renowned guest artists. The place invites you to go behind the scenes and watch musicians and singers practicing and sharing their skills at pre-show performances.
In the afternoon concert at the exquisite jewelbox Theatre House, virtuoso violinist Eric Silberger and cellist Daniel Lelchuk treated us to two lovely works for violin and cello, the passacaglia Opus 20 by Handel-Halvorsen and Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. Not only did they play well, but there was value added to learn that Silberger might be the only violinist to have ever played inside a volcano. (That bestows a kind of freak star status on Silberger, the sort of story that makes Americans drool.)
The two string players were then joined on stage by Bradley Moore, whose credits not only include conducting but accompanying many major opera stars in America. On this afternoon he gave of himself generously to Silberger and Lelchuk, lifting their considerable talents even further, and they played with passion and a lush romantic sound Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1.
A gala dinner had been brought out for the tribe of smartly dressed opera supporters which included the Japanese Ambassador and his wife, sponsors of the highly-anticipated production. Then everyone toddled down the road to the Festival tent, the larger performance space for the opening of this season’s first of two operas. (Don Giovanni opens next weekend.)
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the greatest if tricky operatic love stories. Politically incorrect Naval Officer Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton seeks pleasure and romantic experiences globally and confidently stakes out his rights to such by leasing a house overlooking Nagasaki Bay and entering into a marriage with a local geisha, an alliance, like the lease, he has no intention of honoring. His discovery that she is only fifteen seems only to stoke his ardor. Her family denounces then abandons her. The couple’s setting up house together and how their relationship develops is never shown, but rather the story skips ahead to three years after Pinkerton has abandoned Butterfly. Cio-Cio-San faithfully awaits his return, which when it finally comes, delivers a brutal and tragic ending.
Puccini’s music is to die for, and Bradley Moore, who had stepped in, replacing Maazel at the podium, and the Castleton Orchestra brought out the colors and passion of this score where everything coalesced beautifully.
The show boasts a dream design team which delivers one of the most beautiful “Butterflys” you are ever likely to see. Designer Erhard Rom has created a breathtaking setting using shoji screens across the back of the stage which slide open to reveal, through video projection, a view of a bay with tiny islands and promontories in the distance and where the water keeps shifting and even features little cut-out boats which also move. The use of changing water and light on water creates a gorgeous palette and metaphor for the enormous range of emotions in Giacomo Puccini’s work.
For the overture, water changes to a projected butterfly ballet, as dozens take flight ascending and being replaced by other butterflies, visually supporting the dazzling lushness of Puccini’s music. Lighting Designer Tláloc López-Watermann has matched the bold shifts of color in the projections, moving the story through appropriate shifts of seasons and moods. Costume co-creators Lauren Gaston and Jonathan Knipsher have made some lovely choices, especially in the sugary pastel parasols and exquisite kimono brocades of the geisha girls and suitor Yamadori’s bronze ceremonial suo and hakama. There was a false note struck with Pinkerton’s uniform which looked a little saggy as if he’d slept in it which didn’t help convey his military shine and crisp authority which the role demands.
There were a few other sour notes in the first act. I found myself irritated that more attention had not been paid to have the women learn to walk appropriately in the traditional tabi socks and geta sandals. Instead of the small sliding steps and slightly turned-in rotation of the legs that is required to convey feminine elegance and modesty, I noticed several females striding across the stage as if they were at the beach in their flip flops. Ekaterina Metlova who sings the role of Cio-Cio San, “Butterfly,” seemed over-animated facially as well as physically, in what would be considered in a classical Japanese esthetic as grimacing and crude. Her sound seemed harsh, and I didn’t buy into her interpretive choice to abandon Butterfly’s youthful innocence and fragility.
But Metlova is a singer who has won me over before, and she did again with her interpretation of Cio-Cio-San in Act II. Her sound warmed up and her confidence grew. She played Butterfly as a woman developing emotional depth and strength of character. Wearing a simple cotton kimono over a western long skirt and blouse, she made me fully believe her struggle as a woman caught between two cultures and even brought out a little comedy as she greets Sharpless, Pinkerton’s friend and fellow American, as a proud mistress of her house, now draped with an enormous American flag, then asks him politely how his ancestors are doing. Later, when she reveals to him her little boy, the product of the marriage and constant reminder of her abandonment, she brought much pathos and ardor to the aria “Chi vide mai a bimbo.”
at Castleton Festival
7 Castleton Meadows Lane
Castleton, VA 22716
Closes July 20, 2014
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – $120
Details and Tickets or call (540) 937-3454
I was especially impressed by Metlova’s expressions of fortitude – in her singing, as in the hopeful “Un bel di,” and also her dramatic abilities, as in the long instrumental passage denoting Cio-Cio-San’s waiting through one night for the lover who had promised to return. Metlova filled this hardest of tasks of simply kneeling to a fullness that crackled with tension and made me believe she would sit faithfully for years if needed.
There are other fine voices and some dramatically satisfying characterizations in the production. Kate Allen, as the maid Suzuki, and Metlova carry their “flower duet” to perfection. Jonathan Burton has a magnificent tenor sound, rich and powerfully expressive. Corey Crider makes a dashing and totally believable Sharpless and more than holds his own vocally with his rich baritone voice. Both Joseph Barron, as Cio-Cio-San’s Uncle Bonzi, and Aaron Wardell, as Prince Yamadori, made striking impressions physically and vocally, and I hope to see more of them. Chris Bozeka, as the greedy and nosy Goro, demonstrated the guy has got great comic character abilities. There are a few dramatic holes in the production, but stage Director Tomer Zvulun has done well bringing this company of young professionals together to deliver the “real thing,” and Metlova makes us ache and weep for her at the end.
Want to beat the heat and the gas prices of a cross-country road trip this summer? Opt instead for a “sta-cation” and head out over one weekend to the Castleton Festival and take in “cool” music, “hot” opera-as-theatre, and some gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Don’t forget to pack a picnic.