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Lewes has Glyndebourne. Katonah has Caramoor.

The musical meccas have much in common. Both are relatively bucolic affairs, manicured bucolic, that is. Both play on private estates an hour or two from the big city, amid courtly flora and gentle fauna. Both boast verdant lawns that invite conspicuous picnicking. And both owe their existence to resident visionaries.

The original visionaries at Caramoor were Walter Rosen and his wife, Lucie Bigelow – a vaunted exponent of a ghostly, also ghastly, oscillating instrument called the theremin. The Rosens bought the property in 1928 and soon began stockpiling precious artefacts. They instituted mansion concerts in 1946 and built a so-called Venetian theatre in 1958. Unto us a fest was born.

Unlike Glyndebourne, Caramoor cannot accommodate staged operas. The open-sided 1,600-seat auditorium is primitive. Facilities are cramped, acoustics demand amplification, and poles that support the tent-like roof obstruct some views. Caramoor does muster a series of operatic concerts each summer, however, thanks to a stubborn idealist named Will Crutchfield. A former critic at the New York Times, he functions as magnetic impresario, musicological scholar and eager maestro. This year he continued a stimulating exploration of bel canto with an expansion of its meaning.

The surprising vehicle on Saturday was Verdi’s Il trovatore. Written in 1853, it is generally regarded as a blood-and-gutsy melodrama steeped in a bold romantic tradition. Aida, if you will, without the triumphal exotica. Never mind. Crutchfield was intent on redefining Trovatore as the relic of an earlier, more graceful era. This, he insisted, was a matter of historic style. He cited elegant elements in the score – cadenzas, cabalettas, ornamental flights, decorative repetitions – essential bel canto elements that have been trampled at best, ignored at worst, in modern performances.

It could be argued, of course, that Verdi was interested in looking forward just as much as he was concerned with looking backward. Still, the concept of an essentially refined, poised and pretty Trovatore was fascinating. Unfortunately, such a performance would require an ensemble of virtuoso specialists, rare divas and divos who command florid techniques. Even if Caramoor could find them, it could not afford them. Crutchfield managed to draft one star, the controversial yet rapturously worshipped contralto Ewa Podles. Faute de mieux, he surrounded her with a quartet of hard-working but hardly earth-shattering would-bes. Compounding the imbalance, he had to contend with a rather rough and rusty band, the youthful Orchestra of St Luke’s, and a rather scraggly pick-up chorus.

Podles, now 55, remains a force of nature. As Azucena, she exuded dramatic concentration, even in an evening gown. She exulted in the old gypsy’s wide-ranging obsessions, stalked the stage knowingly, bathed the line in voluptuous tone. She pointed the text with precise prowess, explored the lower vocal depths with chesty bravado and rose to the highest climaxes with lust sometimes marked by a hint of desperation. She managed to make the linear elaborations expressive, and, unlike her colleagues, actually sang softly for extended periods. 

Francisco Casanova, her portly Manrico, sounded more dashing than he looked, mustered some sweet lyricism but bashed the score when it came to tenorial bluster. Julianna di Giacomo showed full-throated promise as a Leonora who negotiated the high-wire coloratura with much courage, little finesse. Daniel Sutin, eyes popping and chin buried in chest, snarled and staggered darkly as Luna. Daniel Mobbs projected suave basso-gravitas as Ferrando.

Ultimately, thrills were in short supply. So, not incidentally, were trills. Call it belt canto.
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