“Culture has become a destination,” Kate Maguire, the executive director of the Berkshire Theater Festival, told The New York Times in a recent article about the proliferation of summer arts festivals in America. According to The Times , our hills, valleys, glens and waterfronts are alive with 3,000 such events, attracting an estimated 130 million culture-seekers who spend nearly $2 billion every summer for the pleasure of listening to Schubert in a tent or seeing Sophocles under the stars.
The long-time hotbed of festivalitis is the Berkshires, the summer home of 65 arts groups, most famously the Boston Symphony Orchestra. One of the most admirable but least celebrated of the local attractions is the Berkshire Opera Company, which was founded in 1985 and until now has wandered the hills in search of a permanent home. Two years ago, the company purchased the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington, an antique vaudeville house turned movie theater, and hired the architect Hugh Hardy to fix things up. A few weeks ago, the B.O.C. opened its first full season at its new home with a run of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw , thereby announcing itself as a company with the potential to rival America’s premier summer opera festivals, Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown and Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico.
Mr. Hardy has yet to lay a significant hand on the Mahaiwe’s quietly ornate interior. But apart from installing a proper orchestra pit and reducing the number of seats-there are now 720-for better leg and elbow room, there really isn’t much to do. In terms of acoustics, sight lines and intimacy, the Mahaiwe, which opened its doors in 1905, is already a splendid little opera house, the closest thing to a European jewel box that one is likely to find on this side of the Atlantic.
It was the ideal setting for Britten’s masterfully spare adaptation of Henry James’ psychosexual ghost story about the corruption of innocence. Working with a minimum of sets (most effectively the brick back wall of the theater itself, which both intensified the claustrophobia of the story and symbolized its theme of childhood as a state of entrapment), director Ron Daniels and designers Riccardo Hernández, Marina Draghici and Scott Zielinski created a Victorian Twilight Zone in which the piece’s natural and supernatural characters co-existed with eerie fluidity. (One of the theater’s peeling upper boxes proved an ideal place for the dead valet, Peter Quint, to pop out of.)
A faultless cast and an orchestra of first-rate musicians from around the Northeast, conducted with precision by the B.O.C.’s artistic director, Joel Revzen, gave an incisive account of Britten’s marvel of a score, which conveys rising hysteria and ghastliness more beautifully than any music I know. Jennifer Aylmer sang a radiantly touching Governess, and her duets with Mary Ann McCormick’s powerfully projected Mrs. Gross had a Straussian glow. Carl Halvorson’s plangent tenor was eloquent in the Prologue and magnetic as creepy Quint. Elizabeth Shammash’s Miss Jessel was a sad-eyed madwoman out of Edward Gorey, and Ilana Davidson, despite being too old for the part, made an effectively awkward Flora.
As little Miles, Quint’s quarry, a wistfully sweet-voiced boy soprano, Trevor Kaplan-Newman, gave the finest performance by a child in an opera that I can recall-preternaturally alert to everything around him, vigilantly self-possessed. Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper took the wraps off the original story’s murky intimations of pedophilia, and in light of the current scandals in the Catholic Church, the horror of an adult’s sexual hold over a child registered with almost unbearable force. During the curtain calls, the audience laughed with relief when Mr. Kaplan-Newman failed to suppress a yawn as he was taking his bow, reminding us that he was still a little boy who couldn’t-understandably-wait to be tucked in bed.
From Great Barrington, I ventured over to Cooperstown for the final two productions of Glimmerglass Opera’s season. The first was a misfire: a daring attempt to do with a neglected work by Haydn what the company has so successfully done with Handel. Despite Haydn’s inexhaustible reservoir of good tunes and his unerring dramatic instincts when it came to writing symphonic and chamber music, he did not (for all the encouragement of his steadfast patron, Prince Nikolaus of Esterházy) possess a genius for musical theater. Orlando Paladino , which Haydn adapted in 1782 from Ariosto’s best-selling Renaissance potboiler, Orlando Furioso , about a knight driven mad by a faithless woman, is an amiable mishmash of low comedy and high heroism-and it may be unperformable for modern audiences.
Such, at least, was my feeling after sitting through a production, directed by James Robinson, that blithely substituted a tiresomely postmodern aura-shards of mirrors, black and white colors, an anything-goes approach to acting styles-for any sense of the work’s context that might have enlightened the audience as to why it had enjoyed such widespread popularity in its day. ( Orlando played in some 20 European cities, including Vienna, Prague and Berlin.) Standouts in the hard-working cast were Lisa Saffer’s brilliantly sung Angelica and Paul Austin Kelly’s warmly appealing Orlando. Guido Johannes Rumstadt presided efficiently, if none too buoyantly, in the pit.
Britten aside, Glimmerglass has pretty much stayed away from the modern European repertoire, and I was curious to see how the company would handle Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites , which had its premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1957. This is one of the last century’s great oddballs-a work that uses an almost shamelessly schmaltzy score (imagine Tchaikovsky donning a beret) to address in earnest, often talky terms the complexities of faith in the face of adversity. Dialogues , which Poulenc adapted from Georges Bernanos’ play about an order of nuns who were besieged and ultimately beheaded during the French Revolution, may be the only opera ever written in which all the passion is directed at an idea-God.
Still, it’s a compelling work, as John Dexter’s elegantly stripped-down production has proven so consistently at the Met. In the greater intimacy of the Glimmerglass house, it took on more power than I could have imagined. The director, Tazewell Thompson, who was working with richly simple sets by Donald Eastman, somber costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh, and magnificent Rembrandt-like lighting by Robert Wierzel, approached the opera with the utmost dignity and restraint, which may be the only way to approach it. The cast, led by Maria Kanyova’s neurasthenic Blanche de la Force, Robynne Redmon’s imposing Mother Marie, Joyce Castle’s ferociously ravaged Madame de Croissy, and the serene yet searing Madame Lidoine of the indomitable British soprano Anne Evans, seemed imbued with a holy fervor. The orchestra, led by Stewart Robinson, matched the singers at every turn. I attended a matinee performance on a brilliant sunny day, and yet as the afternoon drew to a close, there wasn’t a person in the house, I daresay, who would rather have been elsewhere: We sat transfixed as the nuns marched across the stage on their dreadful way to the guillotine.