Rarely Seen Operatic Gem Sparkles at Caramoor Festival

The great attraction of summer music festivals outside the city is less the tried-and-true repertory than the occasional foray into the unknown. One’s appetite for discovery is whetted by a journey along country roads, map at hand: driving through a pelting rainstorm, say, to hear Don Quixote in Sierra Morena , an operatic rarity by an obscure 18th-century contemporary of Handel named Francesco Bartolomeo Conti.

The venue for this production, the Caramoor International Music Festival in northern Westchester County, has never been a priority destination of mine. The setting is enticing-90gardenedacres aroundapicturesque,if slightlycreepy Moorish-style mansion that dates from the end of the Roaring 20′s. Both the residentchamber ensemble, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the leading soloists are first-class.Butsomehowthe Caramoorfestival-which has been going for more than 60 years-never established a strong artistic profile, the sense that it’s adding something all its own to the profusion of summertime musical extravaganzas. It seemed to exist mostly as a place to enjoy pleasant musical evenings “under the stars” (or the roof of its “Venetian Theater” tent)-a convenient weekend getaway for musical artists in the New York area who could be heard to more rigorous advantage during the regular season. Like the neighboring villages of Katonah and Bedford, Caramoor seemed too safe, too poshly suburban. Last summer, however, the festival brought in Michael Barrett as chief executive and general director, and my antennae went up.

Mr. Barrett, who earned his musical stripes as an assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein, is an impresario of bountiful taste. With Steven Blier, he co-founded the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), which, through its archaeological digs into the vocal literature, has become an indispensable presence in New York’s musical life. He extended his flair for fresh programming at Utah’s Moab Music Festival, which he co-founded with his wife, the violist Leslie Tomkins. His three-year stint in the mid-90′s as director of the Tisch Center for the Arts at the 92nd Street Y is looked back upon as a halcyon period by those of us who bemoan that venue’s decline in prestige. Mr. Barrett is that rare programmer who doesn’t let concept overwhelm enjoyment. As he told me the other day, “I want our programs to be stimulating and illuminating. But I also want them to be entertaining. After all, a concert has to be a concert .”

For this, his first season, Mr. Barrett added a pronounced Latin flavor to a mix that is also strong on new works (including the world premiere of new chamber pieces by John Harbison and David Horne); a celebration of Czech music will close the festival on Aug. 14. I opted for the chilies, and was duly reminded of a sobering fact: Among Western cultures, only the Latin one has preserved a continuously fertile cross-transfusion between its popular and its serious music.

Opening night offered another reminder: The resurrection of what used to be called “light classical favorites” can be a sure-fire hit when presented not individually, as bonbons, but rather as a group. Under the expert if sometimes too straight-faced leadership of the festival’s principal conductor, Peter Oundjian, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s reveled in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol , De Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain (with Cecile Licad as the scintillating piano soloist), Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy (with a young violinist, Jennifer Frautschi, doing the show-off honors with breathtaking stamina), and Ginastera’s suite from Estancia .

A few nights later, I returned for the reprise of a NYFOS concert I’d heard years ago-a program of Spanish love songs featuring the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and a young tenor named Joseph Kaiser, accompanied by Mr. Barrett and Mr. Blier at the piano. In the open-air Spanish Courtyard, a folkloric setting of uneven acoustics and troublesome sight lines, the flickering colors and alternately terse and languorous rhythms of the Spanish sensibility became hypnotic. Gradually, we were taken into the heart of the matter through a series of archways that began with homages to the Iberian spirit by such aliens as Schumann, Fauré, Saint-Saëns and Ravel, then plunged into the real, pungent stuff (Granados, Turina, Rodrigo, Mompou et al.), and lifted, finally, into the familiar, breeze-swept sublimity of “La Paloma.”

As usual at NYFOS events, Mr. Blier was a witty, erudite tour guide, and the singers’ love of the material deepened palpably as the evening went on. Ms. Hunt Lieberson is not just the most powerful Handel singer in the world today (for proof, listen to her just-released recording of Handel arias, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, on the Avie label), she’s also one of the most persuasive interpreters of things Spanish. In such exalted company, her partner might have been cowed into submission, but not Mr. Kaiser. This handsome, unaffected young man possesses a miraculously easy tenor whose robustness hasn’t a trace of reediness. When Mr. Barrett told me that until eight months ago Mr. Kaiser had been a baritone, I thought of how Ms. Hunt Lieberson had also started out in the wrong vocal classification-that of lyric soprano. She came down, he went up, and where they met was magical-a collaboration that had many, after the concert, clamoring for them to do the whole program all over again, this time as a recording.

Since 1997, an annual feature at Caramoor has been the revival of a rarely seen Baroque or early 19th-century opera. Will Crutchfield, who is the festival’s director of opera, has been praised for the shrewdness of his choices and his ability to coach young singers in often daunting material. This year’s selection, Don Quixote in Sierra Morena , was a winner. Francesco Conti was a considerable figure in his day (1681-1732)-the composer of more than two dozen operas for the court of Vienna, where he was the reigning Italian maestro.

Few operas from this period, not even Handel’s, could match Conti’s Don Quixote for such deft interweaving of so many diverse plot elements. Here, as adapted from Book I of the Cervantes novel, they include a rivalry between two pairs of lovers, tomfoolery between Sancho Panza and a servant girl, and the knight-errant’s delusionary quests on behalf of his absent beloved, Dulcinea, as he descends into madness. Conti called the opera a “tragicomedy,” and his music was wholly up to the description: Burlesque patter gives way to anguished melancholy, teasing flirtatiousness to fierce defiance. Mr. Crutchfield’s program notes aptly remark that Conti’s music language, while obeying the conventions of Baroque operatic form, “tilted … not towards parody, but rather towards a kind of neurotic sharpening of expression.” If the music seldom scaled the heights of Handel’s lyric brilliance, it was always dramatically ingenious.

Conducted zestfully by Juan Carlos Rivas, Don Quixote provided a challenging showcase for the festival’s young-artists program. Of the women singers, I most admired the soprano Kelly Sawatsky as one of the lovers, Lucinda, for the bold vibrancy of her sound, and Ruy-Kyung Kim, a mezzo-soprano in the trouser role of Prince Fernando, for the musicality of her phrasing. Dennis Blackwell made an amiable (if perhaps too unshaded) Panza, and David Ekström displayed a hefty tenor as Lope. Towering above a production that smacked agreeably of student effort was Stephen Tharp in the title role. This stylish veteran of the international stage commanded without strain the part’s fearsomely wide vocal range (it was written for one of opera’s first great star tenors, Francesco Borosini) and gave a richly nuanced portrayal of bittersweet, inexorable disintegration-Lear and the Fool made one. This is one operatic rarity I’m eager to hear again-next time with a vocally mature cast, including Mr. Tharp as the Don.