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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Festival Preview: Get Thee to a Nunnery (or Monastery)

Caramoor unveils its summer opera lineup. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Opera in concert at Caramoor's Venetian Theater.
Image © 2015 Caramoor Performing Arts Festival.
Located off a quiet suburban lane in Katonah, NY, the Rosen Estate is a gorgeous folly, an exercise in Renaissance Italian architecture slapped square in a corner of Westchester, NY. Happily, it is also home to Caramoor, a performing arts center whose annual festival features the best of opera, orchestral and chamber music.

The jewel in Caramoor's crown is the Bel Canto at Caramoor series, featuring concert performances of great operas under the enormous, tented expanse of the Venetian Theater. Each year, music director Will Crutchfield picks one rarely performed opera with a classic from the so-called "standard" repertory. This year, Mr. Crutchfield returns the focus to French opera, pairing La Favorite, a late rarity by Gaetano Donizetti with Francois Poulenc's searing Dialogues of the Carmelites. All opera performances feature the Orchestra of St. Luke's under the baton of Mr. Crutchfield.

The July 11 performance of La Favorite marks a rare performance of the opera in its original French text. Mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine makes her New York debut. Opposite her is Stephen Powell, the baritone who made waves last year in the Caramoor staging of Rigoletto. The story tells of a would-be monk who falls in love with the king's mistress (the "favorite" of the title") not knowing of her special relationship with the monarch. Once he finds out, he returns to the monastery. She finds him, begs forgiveness and dies in his arms.

La Favorite comes from the last decade of Donizetti's career, when the composer joined Rossini among the Italian composers who chose to create music for the Parisian stage. Conceived in the early days of grand opera, it is a Spanish historical epic, with a plot jury-rigged from two earlier, unfinished works. It is also considered along with the earlier La fille du Regiment and his final opera Dom Sebastien to be one of the finest examples of the composer's French period.

Dialogues is one of the most intense French operas of the 20th century. It is the true story of a the Martyrs of Compiègne, French nuns who were  besieged, destroyed and eventually sent to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. It is also the story of Blanche, a young nun who joins the Carmelite sisters and experiences a crisis of faith that ultimately leads her to the same grim fate as her fellow nuns. The opera cannot be mentioned without thinking of its visceral finale, a Salve Regina cut short as each nun is led to the guillotine and silenced with the thud of the falling blade.

This production of Dialogues marks Caramoor's first-ever excursion into 20th century opera (it was written in 1957) and features three great singers in leading roles. Mezzo Jennifer Larmore and soprano Hei-Kyung Hong are both acclaimed for their performances at the Metropolitan Opera and are frequently seen on the stage in New York. As the Old Prioress, ex-Valkyrie soprano Deborah Polaski makes a welcome return. The production will be directed by Victoria Crutchfield, who last directed Dialogues at the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. Dialogues will be performed on July 25.

There is more to Caramoor than opera. The Festival offers orchestral concerts (with resident ensemble the Orchestra of St. Luke's) chamber music, lectures, recitals (with artist in residence Heléne Grimaud) and the American Roots series with artists like Suzanne Vega and Lucinda Williams. All this happens at one of the most gorgeous arts environments in this part of the country. You can either drive up to Katonah or (for opera performances) reserve space on the Caramoor Caravan, which leaves from Grand Central Station. See Caramoor.org for more information.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.