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Seen and Heard Festival Review

 

Aspen Music Festival (VIII) Aspen Opera Theater does Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Conlon does Dvorak & Lieberson (HS)

 

For the past several years, portions of Britten's Turn of the Screw have shown up regularly in the opera scenes master classes done before the public Saturday mornings here at the Aspen Music Festival. Saturday evening (July 31) the Aspen Opera Theater finally triumphed with the piece on the main stage at Wheeler Opera House.

 

The chamber opera, which debuted in 1954, is based on the Henry James novella of the same name. It's a spooky story of a governess sent to a remote English manor house by an absent guardian to care for his charges, a boy and girl who seem just a little too smart, a little too good. Events suggest that the ghosts of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and the guardian's valet, Peter Quint, have some weird relationship with the children. Or maybe it's all in the imagination.

 

The set was a bare stage, save for a model of the manor house about the size of a large dollhouse. Windows illuminated on the model to indicate in which room the action was taking place around it. Projected patterns on the back wall suggested outdoor scenes, when a swing was lowered from the flies. Since the case can be made that all the action was really occurring in the characters' minds, this made perfect sense. It also made scene changes quick and seamless.

 

The novella leaves things more ambiguous than the opera does, but Britten's music creates a spell, outlining the characters with deft strokes in the orchestral music associated with them and in the arias and ensembles for them.

 

Edward Berkeley's direction found many telling points, as when Quint caresses Miles as he urges the boy to steal a letter the governess has written to the guardian, or when Quint climbs atop the model house, seeming like a man far out of proportion to his surroundings.

 

A strong cast, both vocally and dramatically, and a 13-piece orchestra under the steady baton of Richard Bado brought Britten's music to life with flair. Currently conductor for the Houston Grand Opera's studio program and guest conductor at several American opera houses, Bado may be best known as accompanist for soprano Renéé Fleming on a recent recital tour.

 

As the governess, soprano Angela Fout is in nearly every scene. A more experienced singer than most of the students in the ensemble, she has already debuted at New York City Opera (as the Countess in Nozze di Figaro) and Micaela (in Carmen). It showed in the way she could suggest both the governess' vulnerability and inner strength. Jason Collins as Peter Quint wielded a bright tenor and a menacing, insinuating stage presence, and the students cast as the two children were brilliantly chosen. Soprano Elizabeth Reiter, slight of build, made Flora into a perfectly nervous pre-teen girl, and gangly, fresh-faced countertenor David Korn used virtually no vibrato to make Miles sound like a boy soprano. Mezzo soprano Abby Powell seemed a bit too perky for Mrs. Grose, but she sang the music well.

 

In sum, it was the best opera production I have experienced in Wheeler Opera House since the last time they did Britten (Midsummer Night's Dream.)

 

Much anticipation accompanied James Conlon's return to the Benedict Music Tent Sunday (Aug. 1st.) The conductor always lifts the game of whatever orchestra he leads, and his devotion to forgotten composers has resulted in some special moments in chamber music concerts as well. Conlon must be the most accomplished American conductor who is not currently leading a major symphony orchestra. Instead he has focused on the Paris Opera and guest conducting many of the leading orchestras. Next year he becomes music director of the Ravinia Festival, the Chicago Symphony's summer home.

 

So it was no surprise that Conlon got a refreshingly clear-eyed and generously detailed performance of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 from the Aspen Festival Orchestra. It was a rousing effort, although the music got loud a lot, sacrificing some nuances for sheer intensity. The best moments, actually, came in the quieter sections of the inner movements, Adagio and Allegretto grazioso. If the opening movement and finale seemed to keep reaching the same peaks, instead of forming the arch that comes in a great performance, the vitality and energy of Conlon's approach carried the day.

 

Peter Lieberson's 1999 piano concerto, Red Garuda, took the featured spot in the first half of the concert. The piece consists of four movements, played without pause, and its story ties in perfectly with the theme of this year's festival -- earth, air, fire and water. Inspired by a flying creature that never stops (from Buddhist myth), Lieberson's programmatic music evokes the creature flying over boiling fires, serene waters and finally rugged mountains.

 

For the first three movements, I wondered why Peter Serkin needed to be positioned at his piano in front of the orchestra. Lieberson's colorful and percussive music seemed intent on creating an orchestral tone poem that completely overshadowed the piano rather than a concerto in which the soloist and orchestra share some sort of balance. Finally, in the last movement, the hubbub in the orchestra receded enough to let the piano emerge as a solo instrument.

 

Red Garuda has its moments, especially the transitions between the movements. When the second movement's thumping and whirring ("fire") gives way to the sustained chords of the third ("water") the effect has surprising emotional depth. But mostly, I heard a lot of clanging and not much lyricism to tie it together, as if Stravinsky left all the quiet bits out of "Rite of Spring."

 

Harvey Steiman

 

Note: Harvey Steiman will be writing regularly from the Aspen Music Festival through its conclusion in mid August.



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