Opera at Caramoor 2015: Donizetti’s La favorite in Original French (July 11) and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (July 25)

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Opera at Caramoor 2015: Donizetti’s La favorite in Original French (July 11) and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (July 25)

Now celebrating its 70th anniversary season, this summer Caramoor presents two operas composed more than a century apart, yet linked both thematically and in their emphasis on vocal beauty. Taking the acclaimed “Bel Canto at Caramoor” series into a 19th season, Donizetti’s La favorite (July 11) will be sung in the original French – a Caramoor specialty – with award-winning French mezzo Clémentine Margaine making her New York debut opposite Stephen Powell, whose title role performance in Caramoor’s Rigoletto last summer was pronounced “perfection” (New York Observer). Marking Caramoor’s first excursion into 20th-century opera, Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (July 25) will be presented in a new staging by Victoria Crutchfield that showcases Grammy Award-winner Jennifer Larmore, Metropolitan Opera leading lady Hei-Kyung Hong, and a rare, eagerly-anticipated New York appearance from Deborah Polaski, who reprises her “imperiously magnificent” (Telegraph, UK) portrayal of the tormented Old Prioress from Covent Garden last year. Mounted in the superb acoustics of the outdoor Venetian Theater on Caramoor’s historic Westchester estate, both semi-staged productions feature the resident Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the leadership of Caramoor’s Director of Opera Will Crutchfield, whose conducting is distinguished by “a fine balance of bravado, intensity, sensitivity and scholarly savoir-faire” (Financial Times).


Thanks in no small part to Crutchfield’s scholarship and expertise, opera has long been central to Caramoor’s success. Last year’s two bel canto offerings were Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Verdi’s Rigoletto, in which, as the New York Times observed: “Mr. Crutchfield led the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in a bristling performance that increased in urgency throughout, reaching a fiery climax at the work’s chilling conclusion.” Indeed, the Financial Times hailed the production as an example of “the kind of fresh approach to a familiar work that one hopes to encounter at Caramoor.” “It all came together this summer,” agreed the Observer. “On perfect summer nights like last weekend, it’s hard to imagine a place I’d rather be than Caramoor.”


Explaining his programming choices for summer 2015, Crutchfield recalls:


“I was reminded of how much I love Dialogues des Carmélites by seeing a production that my daughter directed in 2012. It struck me that it was a perfect choice for us: a modern opera, but one that needs and rewards beautiful voices, in the same way that traditional opera does. That is not true of every 20th-century opera but it is strongly true of Dialogues.

“The opera shares a theme with La favorite, our other opera for the summer. Both of them center on the question of seeking refuge from the world in the bosom of the Church. They ask questions about what justifies that kind of refuge, and what it can accomplish – how the world might intrude into the church, and the church into the world. Both of them end very sadly, and the issues they explore along the way are serious and moving.”


La favorite by Gaetano Donizetti

La favorite continues Caramoor’s track record of reviving the Parisian grand operas of the Italian masters, after internationally celebrated productions of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell in 2011, and of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes and Don Carlos two years later. One of Donizetti’s finest music dramas, La favorite shows the composer at the pinnacle of his powers; according to Toscanini, in “the last act, … every note is a masterpiece.” The second of the four works he completed for the Paris Opera, it proved such a success that it was staged there each season from its 1840 premiere until 1894, with occasional revivals until 1918. Since then, however, the opera circulated primarily in a heavily censored Italian translation and the world lost sight of Donizetti’s original.


Set in 14th-century Spain, La favorite tells the story of Fernand, a novice who renounces monastic life when he falls in love with Léonor, unaware that she is the mistress, or favorite, of King Alphonse of Castille. Although the king had hoped to divorce his queen and marry Léonor, he agrees to release her to marry Fernand instead. After their wedding ceremony, however, Fernand finds out about his bride’s past relationship, and returns, disillusioned, to the monastery. Léonor finds him and begs his forgiveness, but as soon as he grants it she collapses from exhaustion and dies in his arms.


Crutchfield explains:


Caramoor has become the ‘go-to’ place for making sense of these sprawling French grand operas. La favorite was written for Paris, and in French. Like several other French operas by Italian composers, it entered international circulation with Italian singers, and in Italian translation. In this case it was a real disaster, because Italian censors, who had to pay attention to the Vatican, really changed the story. In La Favorite, the King of Spain is trying to do what Henry VIII did in England: divorce his wife and marry his mistress. And the Church is opposing him. This had to be so bowdlerized in Italy that you can barely tell what’s going on. So for years, La favorita (as it’s called in Italian) was appreciated with the sense that the drama was ridiculous but the music was beautiful. With the original libretto, they are both beautiful. And of course the music fits the original words better.


In the title role of Léonor, Caramoor’s upcoming performance stars European Culture Prize-winning mezzo Clémentine Margaine. A member of Deutsche Oper Berlin, Margaine first headlined Carmen there three years ago before reprising the role at Dallas Opera, where she proved herself “a dream voice for the passionate but mercurial Gypsy, in an elaborately nuanced portrayal” (Dallas Morning News). Also making his New York debut as the novice Fernand is Argentina’s Santiago Ballerini, first-prize winner in both the American Society Competition and the San Juan Opera Competition. Their love triangle is completed by the King Alphonse of Stephen Powell; the New York Times admired the way Powell’s “range of vocal colorings and shadings rendered potent the conflicting personality elements” as Caramoor’s Rigoletto last summer, and the Wall Street Journal lauds his “rich, lyric baritone, commanding presence, and thoughtful musicianship.” Rounding out the cast as Prior Balthasar, father of the queen and advisor to Fernand, is American bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, a Caramoor regular who impressed the New York Times with his “solid, resonant voice and boundless energy.” as Will Crutchfield put it, “When Dan Mobbs is in the cast, … good feeling is guaranteed. Not only does he sing well, but other people seem to sing better around him.”


Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc

With Dialogues of the Carmelites, Caramoor branches out from its core repertory of bel canto opera to present a 20th-century masterpiece. Crutchfield notes that Poulenc’s second contribution to the genre is “precisely the opera that has, more than any other written after World War Two, attracted the great singing actresses of the standard repertory. From the very beginning, the work was interpreted by singers like Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Anneliese Rothenberger, Régine Crespin, Virginia Zeani, and Fiorenza Cossotto.”


Composed in 1957, Poulenc’s powerfully affecting vocal writing serves a tragedy set against the violent backdrop of the French Revolution. Loosely based on historical events, it depicts the Martyrs of Compiègne, Carmelite nuns who, in the final days of the Reign of Terror, were guillotined for refusing to renounce their faith.


As might be expected with such a comparatively recent work, the performance history of Dialogues des Carmélites is less complicated than that of Caramoor’s regular operatic fare. Nevertheless, in following Poulenc’s original score, Crutchfield diverges in one important way from more familiar productions. He explains,


“We will leave out some interludes that Poulenc added after finishing the opera – because time was needed for scene changes. Here is a case where ‘semi-staging’ gives an advantage: we can change the scene with a lighting cue, and allow the music to flow just as Poulenc originally imagined it. It makes only perhaps seven or eight minutes’ difference in the overall length of the show, but it feels much more concise and to the point.”


Caramoor’s original treatment is by stage director Victoria Crutchfield, whose recent projects include Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Featuring costumes, scenic elements, and full theatrical lighting, the upcoming production represents her second staging of Poulenc’s masterpiece, which she previously “directed with eloquent simplicity” (New York Times) at the Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble.


Anchoring Caramoor’s stellar ensemble cast is American dramatic soprano Deborah Polaski, best known for singing Brünnhilde in two historic “Ring” cycles at Bayreuth. Polaski reprises her portrayal of the Old Prioress, following her triumph in the role at London’s Royal Opera House last year, when The Guardian (UK) called her “a magnetic presence as the fierce old woman whose god deserts her at the last.” Singing the New Prioress is radiant Korean-American soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, whose recent Metropolitan Opera highlights include title role appearances in La bohème, La traviata, and Roméo et Juliette. Grammy Award-winning American mezzo Jennifer Larmore, who “proved electrifying” (Opera News) in her role debut as Eboli in Caramoor’s 2013 Don Carlos, returns as Mère Marie, with soprano Jennifer Check, her Verdi co-star, as tormented aristocrat Blanche de la Force; a familiar face at the Metropolitan Opera, Check possesses “rare talent that can send chills down a listener’s spine even in familiar music” (New York Times). She will be joined by “vocally resplendent” (San Francisco Classical Voice) coloratura soprano Alisa Jordheim as loquacious peasant novice Constance, with tenor Noah Baetge, a finalist in the 2009 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions who “sounded spectacular” (Opera News) in Caramoor’s Don Carlos, as Blanche’s earnest brother, the Chevalier de la Force. And, as with the Donizetti, the Dialogues cast is completed by returning Caramoor favorite Daniel Mobbs, who sings the Marquis de la Force, their naïve but kindly father.


Related events: Bel Canto Young Artists at Caramoor

Caramoor is justly celebrated for nurturing young talent and offering sterling follow-up support, through young artist programs that include the Bel Canto Young Artists. Each year, approximately twelve Bel Canto Young Artists receive training in vocal technique and interpretation, before showcasing their development in a pair of summer recitals. Both held in the intimate outdoor space of Caramoor’s Spanish Courtyard, this season’s offerings are Anonymous in Love, a program of unattributed love songs from the Italian bel canto repertory (June 25), and a tribute to the legacy of The Amazing Scarlattis, father and son (July 16). Students also have the opportunity to take part in the season’s two opera productions.


Details of La favorite, Dialogues des Carmélites, and the two Bel Canto Young Artists’ recitals are provided below, and more information is available at www.caramoor.org. For high-resolution photos, click here.


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About Caramoor

Caramoor is a performing arts center located on a unique 90-acre setting of Italianate architecture and gardens in Westchester County, NY. It enriches the lives of its audiences through innovative and diverse musical performances of the highest quality. Its mission also includes mentoring young professional musicians and providing educational programs for young children centered around music. Audiences are invited to come early to explore the beautiful grounds, tour the historic Rosen House and on special Sundays enjoy a delicious Afternoon Tea or unwind with a pre-concert picnic, and discover beautiful music in the relaxed settings of the Venetian Theater, Spanish Courtyard, Music Room of the Rosen House, and the magnificent gardens. Summer concerts take place in two outdoor theaters: the 1,508-seat, acoustically superb Venetian Theater and the more intimate, romantic 470-seat Spanish Courtyard. In the fall and winter all concerts are presented in the magnificent Music Room in the Rosen House. Caramoor’s gardens, also used for concerts and the Garden of Sonic Delights, are well worth the visit and include nine unique perennial gardens. Among them are a Sense Circle for the visually impaired, the Sunken Garden, a Butterfly Garden, the Tapestry Hedge, and the Iris and Peony Garden.




Opera at Caramoor, summer 2015


Sat, July 11 at 8pm

La favorite by Gaetano Donizetti

Venetian Theater

Orchestra of St. Luke’s

Will Crutchfield, conductor


Léonor: Clémentine Margaine, mezzo-soprano

Fernand: Santiago Ballerini, tenor

King Alphonse: Stephen Powell, baritone

Prior Balthasar: Daniel Mobbs, bass-baritone


Sat, July 25 at 8pm

Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc

Venetian Theater

Orchestra of St. Luke’s

Will Crutchfield, conductor

Victoria Crutchfield, stage director


Blanche: Jennifer Check, soprano

Constance: Alisa Jordheim, soprano

Old Prioress: Deborah Polaski, soprano

New Prioress: Hei-Kyung Hong, soprano

Mère Marie: Jennifer Larmore, mezzo-soprano

Chevalier de la Force: Noah Baetge, tenor

Marquis de la Force: Daniel Mobbs, bass-baritone


Related events: Bel Canto Young Artists at Caramoor, summer 2015


Thurs, June 25 at 7pm

Anonymous in Love

Bel Canto Young Artists

Spanish Courtyard


Thurs, July 16 at 7pm

The Amazing Scarlattis

Bel Canto Young Artists

Spanish Courtyard











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All concerts  made possible, in part, by ArtsWestchester with funds from the Westchester County Government.



All concerts made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature


The 2015 Bel Canto Young Artists program is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

© 21C Media Group, May 2015

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