There are probably some rural counties in Virginia where you’d have to worry about an opera singer wandering about unescorted.
Not Rappahannock County.
Probably the worst that could happen here is someone will offer him a place to stay, hoping he’ll decide to rehearse a Puccini aria while one enjoys a cool drink in the afternoon on the porch, and maybe trade what you know about hay or horses for inside information on how to get into the next Castleton Festival dress rehearsal for free.
“Oh, it’s been fantastic,” says Noah Stewart, the tenor who sings the role of Luigi in “Il Tabarro,” one of the three one-act operas of Puccini’s “Il Trittico,” all of which opened this year’s second annual Castleton Festival Friday. The triptych, performed together and separately, is a major part of the three-week gathering of some 200 young artists, singers and musicians brought to Rappahannock County by Lorin and Dietlinde Maazel’s Chateauville Foundation, which also includes symphonic concerts, other operas and a series of recitals at the Theatre at Washington — all of them intimate in the extreme.
Stewart was referring to the experience a Manhattan native and frequent traveler has upon arriving amid the misty (and, for the past week, steamy) Blue Ridge foothills for a music festival that is both laid-back and intense — and uniquely instructive to the young artist.
“It’s so beautiful here, and calm, and the days are long. Being a New Yorker, and being kind of spoiled, to have all this music while being able to take your time, and walk everywhere, it’s not just good physically but also mentally — to clear your mind,” Stewart says. “I’ve been on the road the last seven months, almost nonstop, so it’s so nice to come to a place and work, but in this environment, it’s almost like a vacation.
“To walk to work, to walk to the Theatre House to eat [the festival feeds more than 200 every night at the permanent theatre not far from the Maazels’ manor house] . . .. People keep stopping and saying, ‘Noah, do you want a ride?’ and I say ‘No.’ I’m really enjoying taking it all in, the hills, the cows, the deer . . .”
So now you know a little about what the Rappahannock experience feels like for the big-city opera singer, but just as relevant is what the opera experience feels like for those of us lucky enough to live within unpaved-road-driving distance of the Maazels’ 600-acre farm, as it is transformed into a sprawling city of classical music through the end of July.
In a word, that would be “fabulous.”
At Friday’s opening-night opera performance — all three of the Puccini operas, interspersed with separate dinner and dessert sessions in the food court adjacent to the 400-seat performance tent — Stewart garnered the loudest applause. His soaring tenor, emotional conviction and physicality raised the bar, not to mention the volume, for the other up-and-coming cast members of “Il Tabarro.”
The first of the Puccini one-acts is the story of a cuckolded barge owner (Nicholas Pallensen) whose wife, Giorgetta (Jessica Klein) has fallen for the stevedore Luigi; their passion, as sung by Stewart and Klein, was entirely real.
(Overhead English captioning, by the way, is a great boon to those of us who appreciate the peerlessly expressive sound of Italian — but don’t understand a word of it.)
In the other two operas performed Friday, standouts included baritone Corey Crider’s hilariously malevolent portrayal of the title character in the comedy “Gianni Schicchi,” and both the orchestra, conducted by Maazel, and nearly every one of the ensemble of singers in the tragic “Suor Angelica,” which closed the evening on a wrenchingly sad note.
Stewart says he’s come to appreciate, besides the festival’s by-turns challenging and calming atmosphere, is the work asked of the conductors — there being a half dozen conducting fellows who handle the performances Maazel doesn’t personally, and many of the rehearsals and coaching sessions.
“We tease the conductors — ‘Are you sure you’re getting enough sleep?’ They are constantly being asked to work on new repertory, constantly digesting new work. I don’t think many of them had studied ‘Tabarro’ before this festival, and then they’re handed a whole score. And then asked to prepare for an orchestral concert.
“It’s really a wonderful opportunity to learn to appreciate your fellow musicians,” Stewart says.
After three seasons in San Francisco, where he made his debut as Major-domo in the San Francisco Opera’s “Der Rosenkavalier” in 2007, Stewart joined the roster at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. All of this followed his years at the Juilliard School of Music — a term he’d hesitated to take up until he met singer Leontyne Price during his final year of high school at New York’s La Guardia high school, one of the country’s first arts magnet public schools.
“She just happened to be signing CDs at what was then Tower Records, so I took my Leontyne Price CD and a piece of sheet music of “Witness,” a piece she often sang,” and I went up to her and said, ‘Miss Price, you’re such an inspiration — my friends and I had these three laser disks that we watched all the time and had more or less memorized, and one of them was her singing Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ with Pavarotti.
“She immediately asked what my plans were. I told her I wasn’t sure. She said, ‘Julliard is the place for you.’
“I auditioned the following week and within a couple of months I was accepted on a full scholarship.”
Working with Maazel, who at 80 is probably one of the world’s most renowned and experienced conductors, has also been a life-changing experience, Stewart says.
“He has, from his vast experience, to allow you to feel protected,” Stewart says. “And trust is the word, the most important word. When you’re up there, you need to feel trust, and that’s where Maestro comes in.
“Plus, to know that Placido Domingo has sung this same role you’re playing with Maestro Maazel conducting, well . . .” He laughs. “It ain’t bad.”
There are performances of “Il Tabarro” and “Gianni Schicchi” on Friday (July 9) and Sunday (July 11), and a matinee of “Suor Angelica” Saturday (July 10). The trilogy is performed together again July 18 and July 24. Tickets are $35 to $60 and can be purchased at castletonfestival.org or by calling 540-937-4969.