Last Saturday, I finally made it to the Opera Festival at Caramoor, something I’d long wanted to do, but the timing never worked. Very glad it did this year, because everything about it – the gardens, the supporting programs, and most of all, an exceptionally exciting performance of Donizetti’s La Favorite – was delightful.
Under the direction of Maestro Will Crutchfield, the festival includes two operas each year, but that’s only part of it. There are themed events throughout the day.
For Favorite, this included Bel Canto a Due, a one-hour concert of chamber vocal duets, charmingly done by apprentice artists, who would later form the chorus for the opera; also, a short program of arias that were associated with the original cast of Favorite. These were sung by members of the Caramoor Young Artists program, among whom the standouts were Nikhil Navkal, a graceful lyric tenor with an impressive upper vocal extension; and Brody DelBaccaro, whose darkly-colored, focused baritone also had considerable agility.
In addition to presiding over the concerts – and, later, conducting the opera – Crutchfield gave a lecture on the French heroic style, which certainly pertains to Favorite. Contemporary audiences tend to associate French style with a graceful sense of shape and dynamics; Crutchfield’s important point is that, while elegance and delicacy certainly were hallmarks of great French singing, that delicacy was also often meant to go alongside largeness of scale.
This played out in the Favorite performance notably in Crutchfield’s propulsive, cogent conducting (the Orchestra of St. Luke’s was outstanding), which had both size and nuance; also in the performances of most of the cast.
Stephen Powell’s baritone has a thrilling sense of presence and ring – at the same time, a long, sustained trill in his first moments onstage announced that there would be a ornaments, and a sure sense of bel canto line. I sometimes wished for more soft singing from Powell, but it was a highly distinguished performance. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs had similar virtues, and these two singers offered the clearest diction of the evening (if with audible American accents).
Mezzo soprano Clémentine Margaine also has a substantial voice – the plushness and thrust of her tone recall the great Rita Gorr. Margaine had some moments where the middle voice didn’t project as well as it might, and though she was the only native French speaker among the principals, her diction wasn’t always clear. On the other hand, her fiery ascents in the upper register raised goose bumps. There’s no mistaking that this is a major voice of truly individual timbre. I hope Margaine’s stage temperament will grow – she could be a star in this repertoire, and much more (I hear Amnerises and even Ortruds in her future).
Santiago Ballerini, an Argentinian tenor, making his New York debut, has a more lyric-sized voice than Margaine or Powell. Visibly nervous, it also took him some time to find best form, and his heavily accented French remained opaque – but in the second act, he did some lovely singing, the warm, forward tone reminding me occasionally of Alain Vanzo (there’s no higher praise), and perhaps more than any of the others, really finding the light-and-shade in his phrasing.
Good as the various individual parts were, Favorite was even better in the total experience. It turns out to be a much more compelling work than I had expected (those who know it only from the Italian version aren’t getting the whole picture). The acoustics in the Caramoor tent are sensational – voices register with an uncommon degree of clarity, and the relative intimacy (1,500 seats – less than half the size of the Met) makes the whole experience that much more immediate. If only opera in performance sounded like this more often! – by which I mean both the acoustics, and the quality of the music making.
I look forward to returning in two weeks for Dialogues des Carmélites.