Ash Lawn opera: Arias amid the squawks

Here’s a puzzler: how can a bird as beautiful as the peacock, with its iridescent blue-green feathers, graceful neck, and regal headdress, possess such a ridiculously loud and squawky call? The folks at the Ash Lawn Opera Festival, celebrating its 25th season this summer, selected the peacock as an element in their marketing logo, partly, I imagine, because the birds are part of the scenery if you happen onto the grounds of former President James Monroe’s estate, just up the road from Monticello.
But also, I’m guessing, because peacocks inspire most of us to move closer and take a good look, despite the annoying sounds they make.
I traveled out to Ash Lawn Wednesday evening, July 3, picnic basket in hand, for one of the mid-week performances sponsored by the opera company. In addition to the regular line-up of three full-scale musical productions, the singers also provide a “Music at Twilight” series on selected evenings. Despite the steamy weather, the grounds provided the perfect spot for a summer repast.
Close to show time, I put away the picnic things and wandered through the boxwood gardens to the pavilion where a crowd of a couple hundred sat fanning and waiting. Shortly after 8pm, a dark-haired woman in a boa lurched from behind a partition and began belting out a number from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, “Another Openin’, Another Show.”
The performance included mostly solos and duets from several well-known Broadway standards, West Side Story, Kiss Me, Kate, and Oklahoma! Interspersed among the songs were short commercials for the upcoming full-scale operas that are sung in English without amplification on an outdoor stage nestled among the boxwoods. This year’s slate of performances, which runs in repertory through mid-August, features Verdi’s La Traviata, the story of an infamous courtesan with a compassionate heart who gives up her beloved to save him from scandal.
Joining La Traviata is Kiss Me, Kate, the American musical favorite recently revived on Broadway. It gives the audience a peek at the backstage antics of a theater company putting on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The show-within-a-show boasts plenty of classics, including “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” and “So In Love.”
Rounding out the festival offerings is Gioacchino Rossini’s last comic composition that reworks the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola. Money Magazine has tagged the Ash Lawn Opera Festival as one of the world’s 20 top summer companies, and members of the casts have sung throughout the U.S. Grab your picnic basket and follow the sounds of the peacocks out James Monroe Parkway. The night air there is filled with song.

La Traviata plays July 31 and August 7, 9, 14, and 18; Kiss Me, Kate opens July 13 and continues on July 14, 20, 21, 30, and August 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, and 17. La Cenerentola joins the lineup on July 27 and plays July 28, plus August 2, 4, 11, and 16. Ash Lawn-Highland, 1941 James Monroe Parkway. 8pm each evening. $15-24. 979-0122 or