Baroque music, Tuscan castle, Russian hearts

Sitting in the blazing Napa sun, listening to David Daniels and Danielle de Niese singing Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” just 20 feet away with Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque behind them, brought Eugene Pallette to mind.

In René Clair’s 1935 “The Ghost Goes West,” Pallette played a well-meaning but clueless American millionaire who imports a Scottish castle to Florida, stone by stone.

Saturday’s marvelous Festival del Sole concert took place in Calistoga’s Castello di Amorosa, a new, huge presence in Napa Valley, a real castle with parts moved from locations in Europe to California by Daryl Sattui, of V. Sattui Winery.

So how much did building the castle cost? “My wife told me not tosay that, and I am more afraid of her than of you,” came the answer from the man who claims credit for architecture and decoration.

It’s one hell of a castle, with incredible acoustics in the open courtyard (just above the unoccupied prison and torture chamber). Supported by stone behind and around the stage, a canvas A-frame above it, the sound is clean and warm.

In this unusual context, the event’s contents were so outstanding that they would have made a deep impression even in a plain old concert hall. King-of-the-countertenors Daniels was in prime form, leading up to a breathtaking “Aure, deh, per pieta”; de Niese performed on a level of personal best and beyond.

As to the conductor, McGegan was blowing kisses to the singers, the orchestra, the marvelous obbligato players; he should have planted one on himself for his fluid, joyful direction.

Seven generous Handel excerpts and a fine performance of Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D major were not enough. Daniels and de Niese were affecting in a duet from “Ariodante,” but McGegan declared it too sad a note on which to end, so he offered the final duet from “The Coronation of Poppea,” allowing that it’s a love scene between two monsters, Nero and Poppea celebrating the defeat of virtue — but if this be evil, let’s have more of it.

Friday night, at the opening of the festival in Yountville’s Lincoln Theater, Frederica von Stade sang a different kind of Octavian from Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier,” a kind, forgiving and wise young man, not at all the usual hormone-driven, erratic hero.

Besides the tone, the feeling, the atmosphere created by Flicka, this Marschallin-of-an-Octavian was made possible also by the company she kept. In a spooky role reversal, Melody Moore, singing the Marschallin (way too early in her career), appeared far more Octavian-ish than Flicka — in fact, singing the wrong Strauss, sounding a bit like Elektra.

Yet Sophie came across as this mature Octavian’s perfect love interest. With her voice of peaches and cream, Marnie Breckenridge is the Bay Area’s secret treasure, singing fabulously with local companies, but not yet making her mark further afield. She will.

Conducted by Stéphane Deneve, the Russian National Orchestra stormed through Strauss as if it were one among the louder “Pictures at an Exhibition,” but Strauss’ music is so forgiving, even channeling Mussorgsky was acceptable. Besides, after what happened at the end of the concert, one could not say anything critical about the RNO.

It was truly extraordinary — no, not James Galway’s pleasant performances in Marcadante and Cimarosa concertos, enhanced by the partnership of Jeanne Galway in the Cimarosa.

The closer was Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances for Orchestra,” and almost immediately when the performance began, sections of lights went off on the stage, bathing concertmaster Tatiana Porshneva in a spotlight, plunging the entire second-violin section into the dark. Deneve and the orchestra carried on rather well. Then the entire stage turned dark and lights came on in the audience. The band played on. And on.

After about 10 minutes, Deneve stopped the orchestra, turned to the audience to announce an intermission so the problem could be fixed. His voice shaking with emotion, he said, “These are Russian musicians playing their music from their heart.”

And by heart — a strange, heartwarming incident of an orchestra playing together, staying together, performing Rachmaninov in the dark.

Festival del Sole

Continues through Sunday in the Napa Valley. For the schedule, visit

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