Spoleto

“Omar” Triumphs, “Unholy Wars” Struggles

Pictured: Cheryse McLeod Lewis in “Omar” photo by Leigh Webber/courtesy Spoleto Festival USA.

By Lawrence Toppman

“A folk musician and a movie composer.” I heard that fragment of speech, which sounded a bit dismissive, in the lobby of the Sottile Theatre before the second performance of “Omar.” But why should the pairing of co-composers Rhiannon Giddens, who also wrote the libretto, and Michael Abels raise eyebrows?

Composers best known in their day for songs have written operas for 200 years, from Schubert through George Gershwin and up to Rufus Wainwright today. Many authors of film scores have written operas: Bernstein, Copland, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Herrmann, Saint-Saens, Walton and others. And Giddens received classical training at Oberlin College, while Abels has written for symphony orchestras. (The Charlotte Symphony played his “Global Warming” this season.)

In any case, they left virtually no skeptics unconvinced, no eyes dry and nobody’s sense of wonder unstirred with this piece based on the 1831 memoir of Omar ibn Said. They turned that brief and ambiguous book, so short on details about Omar’s passage to America and life as a slave in the Carolinas, into a universal story about a man’s search for self-understanding and refusal to give in to hatred and despair.

Omar, an educated Arabic-speaking man from West Africa, came to Charleston as a slave. His memoir tells us he received cruel treatment at the hands of his first master, ran away, ended up in a Cumberland County jail (surely no other opera contains the plea “Go to Fayetteville!”) and was bought by the relatively kind James Owen, who attempted to convert Omar to Christianity and gets much praise in the little book. Owen may have helped Omar publish his memoirs to show the world Southern slaves were well-treated, but even he probably never knew whether the slave clung to his original Islamic faith.

Writers can adapt this story however they like, and Giddens and Abels did an especially fine job. They quote from it, don’t make significant alternations – Omar doesn’t get a love interest or escape to freedom at last – yet expand it philosophically, as Omar considers his plight and his duty to Allah.

The composers give most of the simpler melodies to the two dozen members of the Spoleto Festival Chorus, who put them across clearly and emotionally. Elements of folk music do come in, as do north African percussion, and all fit. Two women, not described in the book, counsel Omar along the way: young Julie, sung beautifully by Laquita Mitchell, and mama Fatima (dignified UNC-Greensboro and UNCSA graduate Cheryse McLeod Lewis), who supplies balm.

Yet the show belongs to Jamez (pronounced Jah-MEZZ) McCorkle. Spoleto fans heard him in 2017 as a heartbreaking Lenski in “Eugene Onegin.” Here, hobbling slightly on a boot encasing a damaged ankle, he radiated a powerful if sometimes anguished physical presence and a tenor that sailed out over the big orchestra like a lighthouse beacon above a stormy sea. Though the opera rarely approaches atonality, he gets long stretches of declamatory singing, especially in Act 1, and brings each vividly to life.

He will reportedly tour with the show, which goes to Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York before ending up in Chapel Hill. I can hardly imagine “Omar” without him, though if the opera has a long life – and this one might – he’ll have to pass the torch.

Karim Sulayman and Coral Dolphin on kneel on stage in a position of prayer in Unholy Wars. Photo by Leigh Webber.
Karim Sulayman and Coral Dolphin in Unholy Wars; photo by Leigh Webber.

In “Unholy Wars,” a worthy idea got short-changed by awkward execution. Lebanese-American Karim Sulayman conceived the idea, assembled the music and sang most of the numbers in a plangent, flexible and sensitive tenor voice. He wanted to look at the way European composers stereotyped Middle Eastern people through opera, especially in works about the Crusades, and challenge our assumptions by giving those characters individuality.

Unfortunately, he chose no composer later than Handel, whose “Lascia ch’io pianga” (the only familiar melody) capped the 70-minute show. That decision made the production monochromatic and finally monotonous – there’s not a single fast-paced section – and simply showing victimized characters as stereotypes does little to make us care about them.

The small pit band at Dock Street Theatre played with taste and restraint, and soprano Raha Mirzadegan and baritone John Taylor Ward supported Sulayman well, especially in the longest excerpt: Monteverdi’s “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” where a Christian crusader loves a Saracen, kills her unknowingly in battle, then baptizes her so she can enter a Christian heaven.

This demise, as slowed-down as the rest of the show, made Suleyman’s point long before the end of the number. Why silent dancer Coral Dolphin slowly writhed around the stage, sometimes washing herself with water and sometimes with sand, I cannot guess.

     

In Spoleto Festival Chamber Music Series, Last Minute Changes Can Be Good News

By Lawrence Toppman

Ever-restless Geoff Nuttall, wearing a brown suit and a sheepish grin, paced the Dock Street Theatre stage before concert No. 4. “I like getting emails from you,” the host of the Bank of America Chamber Music Series told the audience. “A lot of them start out in a nice way: ‘I really enjoy your chamber music programs.’ Then there’s the ‘but.’ They go on, ‘But…I really don’t like contemporary music as much as you do.’

“Well, those of you who don’t like contemporary music will be happy to hear we’re not playing Andy Akiho’s ‘The War Below,’ because Alexi Kenney got COVID, and the piece was too complicated to get another violinist on short notice.” One audience member applauded lustily. “Don’t be mean!” Nuttall said with a laugh. “The good news is, Pedja Musijevic will play C.P.E. Bach’s Sonata in C Minor instead.”

And there, in 30 seconds, you had the perennial attraction of Spoleto Festival USA’s chamber music concerts: humor, a chatty connection between musicians and listeners, spontaneity at every level and the ability to supply an internationally respected artist on short notice. Musijevic played the piano without a score, so he had the Bach in his fingertips, but he did so with only a day’s warning.

I hadn’t gone to Spoleto on a weekday for many years, and the availability of seats at both the 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. concerts surprised me. They’ve traditionally been full on weekends, but the lesser number of midweek tourists and lingering anxiety about COVID during a spike in Charleston thinned the crowd. (The festival continues through June 12.)

I wouldn’t attribute lower sales to Nuttall’s fresh and ingeniously balanced scheduling. The second program I saw exemplified his deft sonic juggling. It began with a slightly reorchestrated Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, where clarinetist Todd Palmer sailed through the prominent solos usually given to a high-pitched trumpet.

Next came two living composers. Gabriella Smith’s string-woodwind quintet “Children of the Fire” set up a quiet groove, tore it apart to the point of chaos, then set off on a dreamlike, harmonious arc. Tabea Debus turned her recorder into an anxious, fluttering bird through the intense solo “Two and a Half Minutes to Midnight” by Dani Howard.

Then Debus dropped back five centuries to skip nimbly through anonymous Renaissance variations on the tune “La Monica,” subtly abetted by theorbo player Adam Cockerham. Schumann’s Piano Quartet, anchored by gray-maned Stephen Prutsman at the keyboard, ended the program with an ecstatic performance by him and string players from the next generation.

As always, Nuttall prepared the ground for maximum enjoyment. He pointed out that Schumann required the cello to play a low C; cellist Paul Wiancko would suddenly have to re-tune to reach this note for a few moments, then quickly return to conventional tuning to play the rest of his part. Watching Wiancko fiddle frantically with the fine-tuners near the base of the cello added to the pleasure of his warm-hearted playing.

I doubt you could attend two Spoleto chamber concerts without making at least one joyful discovery. I made two.

First, I learned that a sopranino recorder – the tiniest version of that instrument, hardly larger than the fat pencils you give schoolkids learning to write – can sound like something other than steam escaping from an unattended kettle. Tabea Debus played one in the Vivaldi Recorder Concerto in C (RV 443), and the sounds ranged from a pennywhistle-like exuberance to a gentle breeze of melody.

Second, the Castalian String Quartet blew me away with a turbo-charged performance of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6, an agonized piece written soon after the death of his beloved sister, Fanny. (This may have been the best performance of Mendelssohn’s last major work I’ve ever heard.) Nuttall’s own St. Lawrence String Quartet played on the first three chamber concerts and left the rest of the festival to the Castalians, who played superbly together and apart when joining other ensembles.

They and Debus both reside and work in England. We’re lucky that Nuttall keeps finding new faces like these, and Spoleto Festival USA keeps footing the bills to bring them to us.
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Featured Image: Geoff Nuttall (far left) with Owen Dalby, Paul Wiancko, Christopher Costanza, and Lesley Robertson at the Dock Street Theatre. Photo by William Struhs/courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA.

Spoleto at Home

Pictured: The St. Lawrence String Quartet plays Haydn’s “Emperor” quartet during the Bank of America Chamber Music series. Photo by William Struhs.

By Frank Dominguez

I didn’t travel to Europe for the first time until 2012, when I accompanied a group of WDAV supporters on a trip to Paris and Provence. Immersing myself in the history, food and culture of Europe was an experience that is still vivid in my mind.

Before that, I experienced that kind of euphoric heightening of the senses regularly without plane travel – in fact, just a few hours’ drive away – at the annual Spoleto Festival USA.

With Charleston, SC, providing the historic atmosphere and gourmet cuisine, the festival provided the cultural stimulation any arts lover covets, with a kaleidoscopic array of theater, dance and music of all types.

For me the highlight was always the incredible classical music, with performers from around the globe presenting chamber music concerts twice daily, rarely heard operas, and the types of orchestral programs that are simply not practical for our beloved regional orchestras to present most of the time.

The Spoleto Festival USA has been the site of some of the most intense memory making of my artistic life. So while the news of the festival’s cancellation this year because of the pandemic came as no surprise, it was nevertheless an intensely sad moment for me, and I expect for many of WDAV’s listeners who are also fans.

That’s why we’re bringing them highlights of past festival performances virtually, every Wednesday at 11 a.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. through June 6th, to coincide with what would have been the festival’s run this year.

And for die hard festival lovers, the news is even better, as Spoleto at Home offers free digital programming for audiences to enjoy in lieu of the 2020 season.

Until we can again contemplate the prospect of crowds in Charleston’s French Quarter, these offerings provide a wonderful way to keep alive the spirit of one of the nation’s most distinctive cultural events.

Remember to tune in to WDAV Wednesdays at 11 a.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. through June 6th to hear highlights of past festival performances. Broadcast from the Spoleto Festival are made possible by DaisleyLegal.

A Festive Carolina Summer

Summer festivals, featuring diverse artistic contributions from chamber music and orchestra to theatre and choral singing, are happening across North and South Carolina. Below you’ll find highlights from a selection of festivals, as well as access to websites for performance schedules and event details.

An Appalachian Summer Festival

An Appalachian Summer Festival Logo

In its 35th anniversary year, the Appalachian Summer Festival offers an array of performances that run the gamut of artistic media, from the symphonic music of the Eastern Festival Orchestra to the voice of Patti LaBelle to a night with comedienne Lily Tomlin. Lasting over a month, this festival offers myriad opportunities to engage with some of the foremost cultural, artistic, and musical figures of the present moment.

Brevard Music Center Summer Festival

Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium; Photo courtesy of Platt Architecture, PA.

The 2019 Brevard Center Summer Festival, set near a lake in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, will host a wide selection of musical artists. The festival features a large collection of works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Aaron Copland, as well as a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark with a live performance of John Williams’ compositions for the score.

Eastern Music Festival

The Eastern Music Festival showcases the musical fruits of an educational experience for young musicians. Coming from across the United States, over 200 students from ages 14 to 23 descend on Greensboro, NC, for five feverish weeks of intensive study and practice of instruments ranging from classical violins to trumpets to acoustic guitars. These students prepare eight full-length concert programs, to be performed after mastering each program.

Spoleto Festival

The Spoleto Festival, held annually in Charleston, SC, features a diverse collection of theatre, chamber music, dance, and choral and orchestral performances. Highlights of the season include a trio of Shakespeare’s plays ( Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors, and Pericles ), a “Classical Showcase” by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra of works from the classical and neoclassical periods, and various choral works with the voices of the Westminster Choir.

Unable to make it to the festivals this year? Tune in to WDAV Classical Public Radio to hear music from many of these festivals on programs like Open Air Brevard, Spoleto Chamber Music Series and Carolina Live. Check the WDAV program schedule for air dates and times.

Dispatch from Spoleto: A Night at the Opera

Pictured: Elliot Madore in the US premiere of Tree of Codes, with music and libretto by Liza Lim. Photo by William Struhs.

By Lawrence Toppman

Every opera at Spoleto Festival USA that gets a U.S. premiere – in this case, both fully-staged offerings for 2018 – begins as a mystery. Have long-lost pieces by masters been unreasonably neglected? Have current composers remained obscure for a reason?

On the evidence of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Pia de’ Tolomei” and Liza Lim’s “Tree of Codes,” which run in repertory through June 8, I’d answer “Yes” to both questions.

Donizetti and librettist Salvatore Cammarano, who collaborated on eight operas, premiered “Lucia di Lammermoor” in 1835. “Pia” came along two years later and seems like a little sister: Beautiful, worth knowing, but living in the shadow of an immortal.

Amanda Woodbury and Valdis Jansons in the US premiere of Donizetti's Pia de' Tolomei. Photo by William Struhs.

Amanda Woodbury and Valdis Jansons in the U.S. premiere of Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei. Photo by William Struhs.

The authors took “Pia” from a quatrain in “Purgatorio,” where Dante writes of people who were penitent at the times of sudden violent deaths. Nello, Pia’s jealous husband, imprisoned her after an accusation of infidelity by Ghino, who wanted her but couldn’t tempt her. The man she keeps in the shadows is her brother, Rodrigo, who has escaped jail as a political refugee.

The libretto’s no clumsier than most from the mid-19th century, and director Andrea Cigni makes it more plausible and relevant by updating it to Fascist Italy in the pre-war 1930s. Rodrigo has been jailed not for belonging to a different family but for leading the Resistance; Ghino’s unconvincing fatal wound in battle in the original narrative has become an accidental killing at the hands of sentries.

Cassandra Zoe Velasco (center) in Donizetti's Pia de' Tolomei. Photo by William Struhs.

Cassandra Zoe Velasco (center) in Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei. Photo by William Struhs.

Pia now tries to save great art from destruction by right-wingers, including a portrait of her by Eliseo Sala (painted after the opera premiered). This irrelevant but unobtrusive subplot doesn’t hold the production back. Nothing could on opening night, including a power outage at Sottile Theatre that left only one floodlight operating at last. (Well, the final scene is set in a dungeon.)

Matthew Anchel (center) in the US premiere of Donizetti's Pia de' Tolomei. Photo by Leigh Webber.

Matthew Anchel (center) in the U.S. premiere of Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei. Photo by Leigh Webber.

The melodies show Donizetti near the peak of his skill, from one of the soprano-mezzo duets he loved — this time in friendship, not enmity — to a somber “Lucia”-like ensemble for four soloists and chorus. Amanda Woodbury’s creamy soprano served the title role well, and Cassandra Zoe Velasco’s hefty voice made Rodrigo a presence with whom to be reckoned. Isaac Frishman’s small, flexible tenor put Ghino’s arias across in the smallish hall, and baritone Valdis Jansons brought unexpected complexity to the mostly snarly Nello.

Spoleto’s pick-up orchestra, augmented in “Pia” by Westminster Choir, remains a marvel, and Lidiya Yankovskaya conducted with the brio and tenderness this opera demands. Those same musicians played with equally scrupulous dedication for conductor John Kennedy in “Tree of Codes,” though nobody in the audience would’ve known if they’d hit clinker after clinker.

Elliot Madore in Tree of Codes, with music and libretto by Liza Lim. Photo by William Struhs.

Elliot Madore in Tree of Codes, with music and libretto by Liza Lim. Photo by William Struhs.

Virtually everything about Lim’s opera seemed random, from the wisps of orchestration to the rambling dialogue. (She wrote her own libretto.) Extensive program notes promised a philosophic piece I’d like to have seen onstage but never did, except for hints of one theme: Received wisdom from the past lies heavily and perhaps foolishly on us in the present.

The disconnection between idea and execution began with Scott Zielinski’s set. According to the notes, an “onstage monolith evokes the loss of Jewish lives in the last century, which is the loss for all mankind.” This edifice resembled a maquette for a six-story parking deck that had sunk into the ground at a 30-degree angle, and nothing in the text referred to it. (I did enjoy the lights that slashed across it, from bilious green to celestial white.)

Elliot Madore and Marisol Montalvo in the US premiere of Tree of Codes. Photo by William Struhs.

Elliot Madore and Marisol Montalvo in the US premiere of Tree of Codes. Photo by William Struhs.

Soprano Marisol Montalvo and baritone Elliot Madore had excellent pitch and diction as Adela, a mystic, and Son, a boy mourning (or perhaps simply missing) his father. Yet singers can’t seem anything but ridiculous while sitting at center stage, clutching megaphones and repeatedly uttering “I wish. I want. I wish. I want.” (Or, to be precise, “I wiiiiiiiish. I waaaaant.” Melismas were the order of the day.)

Elliot Madore and Marisol Montalvo in Tree of Codes. Photo by William Struhs.

Elliot Madore and Marisol Montalvo in Tree of Codes. Photo by William Struhs.

A mute character dubbed The Dreamer (costume designer Walter Dundervill) placed props, occasionally dressed or undressed the singers and pulled them around on wheeled platforms meant to lend mysterious grace to their movements. Dundervill retained a stone-faced dignity even as Son ranted in Russian (or was it Esperanto?), which suggested he wisely wasn’t paying attention.


To learn more about the performances at this year’s festival, visit Spoleto Festival USA.

WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto: Spoleto Theater and Dance

By Lawrence Toppman

Soaring was the main activity of the opening weekend of Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston. Literally so in exuberant performances by Miami City Ballet and metaphorically so in “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” a captivating play about the loving, tempestuous marriage of painter Marc Chagall and writer Bella Rosenfeld.

Kneehigh Theatre has come from its Cornwall, England, home to Charleston four times in 12 years. If you’ve seen “The Red Shoes” or “Tristan & Yseult,” you know what to expect from “Vitebsk:” a total-theater piece with song, dance, drama, circus skills, even mime. Versatile Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood, who looked eerily like the Chagalls, played not only the couple but all the smaller parts.

Marc Antolin as Marc Chagall and Audrey Brisson as Bella Chagall in Kneehigh's "The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk"

Marc Antolin as Marc Chagall in Kneehigh’s “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” presented at the Dock Street Theatre. Photo by Steve Tanner.

Their story is a microcosm of Eastern European history from the early 1900s to World War II: pogroms against Jews by the tsar, Marc’s travels to study in Paris and Berlin, his return to Russia for World War I, persecution by the Bolsheviks, artistic freedom and productivity in France, the destruction of Vitebsk and most of Belarus by the Nazis, eventually an escape to America. The story ends with her death from a viral infection in 1944, though she reappears as a sweetly comical angel.

The play at Dock Street Theatre has undergone a 25-year transmigration, from the time author Daniel Jamieson wrote it as “Birthday” and starred in it with Emma Rice. (She directed the current production, done in partnership with Bristol Old Vic.)

It retains a zany wildness while exploring serious issues: Marc and Bella might stomp about with a papier-mache fish and cockerel on their heads, singing a tune in Yiddish, then fall into a discussion about the artist’s responsibilities to his family and the world. He blithely clings to ideals about the transformative power of art while government thugs smash the windows of her family’s jewelry store, and he doesn’t take notice of his daughter until she’s four days old. (“Have you named her yet?” he asks with wistful embarrassment.)

Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood in Kneehigh's "The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk"

Kneehigh’s “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” presented at the Dock Street Theatre. Photo by Steve Tanner.

Rice keeps the show surging forward through 90 intermission-free minutes, as multi-instrumentalists James Gow and Ian Ross sing and play anything from a cello to an accordion. By the end, our sympathies are evenly divided between pragmatic Bella and dreamy Marc, who outlived his first love by four decades and produced masterpieces in every one.

The play runs through June 10, the last day of the festival. The ballet, alas, stayed only through the opening weekend. (There’s still lots of good dance, up to “One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures/NEW BODIES” on the last day; it offers three New York City Ballet dancers, including Columbia native Sara Mearns, in works by Trisha Brown and Jodi Melnick.)

Nineteen years have passed since I saw Miami City Ballet on its second visit to Spoleto. Edward Villella, who founded the company in 1985 and ran it until 2012, brought in a talented troupe that specialized then in the work of George Balanchine and aspired to greatness.

Miami City Ballet’s Shimon Ito in Justin Peck’s Heatscape with set design by Shepard Fairey. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

The company that danced this year under artistic director Lourdes Lopez has achieved it. I recently saw back-to-back performances at American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, Balanchine’s former company. Miami can stand alongside those two great troupes, based on the evidence at Gaillard Auditorium.

The corps in Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht,” an elegant piece set to the mostly insipid ballet music from Charles Gounod’s “Faust,” moved as if one body and filled every gesture with meaning. Jennifer Lauren and Chase Swatosh told a complete story in seven minutes in Kenneth MacMillan’s “Carousel Pas de Deux,” she as a tomboyish Julie discovering yearnings she didn’t know she had and he as a brash Billy discovering tenderness he didn’t know he had.

Members of Miami City Ballet in Justin Peck's Heatscape.

Members of Miami City Ballet in Justin Peck’s Heatscape. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

MacMillan won a Tony for choreographing that 1994 Rodgers and Hammerstein revival, and many people think Justin Peck will get one this year for the new production. Spoleto audiences saw Peck’s “Heatscape,” bursts of perfectly executed energy that didn’t amount to a great deal. The concert’s highlight came from Alexei Ratmansky: “Concerto DSCH,” set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. It spoofed Soviet ballets about the glorious future of the USSR while incorporating poignant and romantic episodes.

Dignified, expressive Simone Messmer stood out in the slow movement. Messmer danced for more than 12 seasons at American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet before moving to Miami in 2015. Two decades ago, that would have been a step down from the summit. It isn’t any more.


To learn more about the performances at this year’s festival, visit Spoleto Festival USA.

WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto: Reflections

 

Several of the people from the Spoleto Festival USA I’ve interviewed for this series have expressed the same idea: that attending these varied events in close proximity to each other gives you an enhanced appreciation for each event that you might not have otherwise. As the end of my latest visit to the festival draws near, I can heartily confirm that’s true.

Pianist Pedja Muzijevic plays one of the pianos in the Hamburg Steinway & Sons showrooms in Germany. Photo by Christina Czybik.

Pianist Pedja Muzijevic plays one of the pianos in the Hamburg Steinway & Sons showrooms in Germany. Photo by Christina Czybik.

Some of the concerts I’ve attended have distilled that concept to its most basic. For example, the Dialogues recital given by the brilliant pianist Pedja Muzejevich as part of the Music in Time series. He gave a performance at the Simons Center Recital Hall at the College of Charleston that juxtaposed the familiar language of Haydn piano sonatas with much more unusual works, such as John Cage’s Bacchanal for Prepared Piano, which at times makes the piano sound like a rhythmic machine, and in slower passages like an exotic Asian instrument. Having that type of sound experience gives you fresh perspective on how Haydn sounds now, and how his music might have sounded when it was first heard.

Other combinations aren’t as stark in contrast, but just as meaningful. My favorite was the coupling of two works for chorus and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams in one part of a concert, with the Mozart Great Mass in the other. Comparing Mozart’s stately yet profound religious expression with the lush and rapturous writing of Vaughan Williams made the qualities of each composer’s work stand out all the more. Of course, I would have enjoyed that program in any event since it featured one of my all-time favorite pieces. The Serenade to Music by Vaughan Williams featured exquisite solo violin work by the uncredited concertmaster, as well as beautiful vocal solos from soprano Sherezade Panthaki and tenor Jamez McCorkle (who also stood out during this festival for his moving rendition of Lensky’s aria in Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin).

Soprano Pureum Jo performs with the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra during Mahler 4 and Dreaming. Photo by William Struhs.

Soprano Pureum Jo performs with the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra during Mahler 4 and Dreaming. Photo by William Struhs.

The pairing of Mahler’s 4th Symphony with a contemporary orchestral piece was another concert program which worked wonderfully well. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s atmospheric Dreaming (with its rumblings, chirps, groans, cracks and other sonic effects) brought to my mind images of great whales swimming in frozen seas, and majestic glaciers drifting in icy flows. Its introspective quality was offset nicely by the exuberant Mahler, which under John Kennedy’s direction was everything music by that composer can be. Imaginative, quirky, mercurial and sublime, the score frequently built to spine-tingling explosions of orchestral color perfectly modulated by the Spoleto Festival USA orchestra.

Franco Pomponi as Eugene Onegin and Natalia Pavlova as Tatyana Larina in Eugene Onegin at Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Leigh Webber Photography.

Franco Pomponi as Eugene Onegin and Natalia Pavlova as Tatyana Larina in Eugene Onegin at Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Leigh Webber Photography.

Similarly, the contrast between the three opera productions made each more memorable. After the mannered Baroque approach of Vivaldi’s Farnace, and the austere modernity of Quartett by Luca Francesconi, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin seemed the pinnacle of lush Romanticism. It was also distinguished by the cinematic staging of director Chen Shi-Zheng, which used projected film of the striking soprano Natalia Pavlova (in close-up as well as silhouette) to take us into the inner life of her character, Tatyana.

Franco Pomponi as Eugene Onegin with cast in Eugene Onegin at Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Leigh Webber Photography.

Franco Pomponi as Eugene Onegin with cast in Eugene Onegin at Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Leigh Webber Photography.

I also admired the forest of stylized birch trees that formed the main feature of the set (though they did cramp the choreography a bit in the ball scene that features some of Tchaikovsky’s most familiar opera music, the famous waltz and polonaise from the score which have become concert staples). The staging of Lensky’s aria was stunningly beautiful yet simple: the stage stripped bare all the way back to the walls of the backstage area, with both real and projected snowflakes swirling against the black background conveying Lensky’s desolation as he awaits the duel which he may not survive.

amez McCorkle as Vladimir Lenski in Eugene Onegin at Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Leigh Webber Photography.

Jamez McCorkle as Vladimir Lenski in Eugene Onegin at Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Leigh Webber Photography.

Despite the embarrassment of artistic riches I’ve enjoyed over the past couple of weeks, there’s so much I didn’t have a chance to catch, so I guess a return visit for a future season is in order. After this experience, I certainly won’t hesitate to come back.

WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto: Chamber Music & Quartett

The Dock Street Theatre in Charleston is a remarkable venue. With its graceful exterior architecture, it matches the charm of the surrounding historic neighborhood. Its seating provides an intimate experience for audience members, and its brick courtyard is a pleasant space for refreshment during intermissions. But to me what’s most impressive about it is its versatility. During this season of the Spoleto Festival USA the Dock Street stage is the home of the Vivaldi opera Farnace and the Beckett play Waiting for Godot running in repertory, yet the theater also still houses the twice-daily performances of the justly celebrated Spoleto Chamber Music Series.

Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, SC.

Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, SC; photo by Julia Lynn Photography.

On the morning I attended a performance in the series the program featured a lilting Bach concerto, a contemplative multi-media world premiere for piano and video, and the emotionally raw Piano Trio in D Minor by Robert Schumann, all three works superbly performed. The distinguishing feature of all the events in the series is the charismatic, informal and insightful commentary of the series director, Geoff Nuttall. There’s also the wonderful vantage point provided by the house itself, which enables you to see the interaction between the musicians – and occasionally with the audience – in a way that’s simply not possible in most performance halls.

While the program I enjoyed won’t be performed again during this festival, there are many others planned with a wide range of music and performers. The concerts are given daily through June 11th at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. If you enjoy chamber music, you’re not likely to be disappointed attending any one of them.

My first experience with contemporary opera at Spoleto Festival USA was Kaija Saariaho’s Émelie in 2011, which I found moving and enthralling despite the unusual character of the music – or perhaps because of it. So I was open to a similar experience this season with Quartett, written the same year with music and libretto by Luca Francesconi. And there’s no faulting the skills of all of the technical and performing artists collaborating on this production, which was first staged at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, London. My qualms are with the story itself.

A scene from Quartett between Merteuil (Adrian Angelico) and Valmont (Christian Miedl). Photo © Leigh Webber Photography.

Adrian Angelico as Merteuil and Christian Miedl as Vicomte de Valmont in Quartett. Photo © Leigh Webber Photography.

Quartett is an adaptation of a 1980 play by Heiner Müller, which in turns takes as its source the novel which inspired the film Dangerous Liaisons. But in this opera we find no malevolently beautiful figures like Glenn Close and John Malkovich, no occasional moments of wicked humor as relief, no respite in the elegance of beautiful settings, costumes, or for that matter, music. Instead there is an apocalyptic landscape, represented by a narrow playing area for the singer/actors on metal grids downstage of the orchestra. Suspended over the stage are long, pale shreds of fabric on which are projected all manner of atmospheric lights and eerie animations. The only characters in the piece, the Marquise and Valmont, are clad in grimy underclothes and covered in dirt, as if they’ve survived some cataclysm.

The music is atonal and demanding, and the cliché would be to describe it as horror movie music, but that’s actually quite appropriate for a tale in which two human monsters battle to the death while role playing disturbing scenarios. Mezzo-soprano Adrian Angelico and baritone Christian Miedl are daring and virtuosic in the roles, which they inhabit fully. Angelico possesses a ferocious lower register but can still hit penetrating high notes, while his voice has a brassy burnish; Miedl also occasionally uses a “head voice” for falsetto passages to nightmarish effect. Their voices are amplified, not necessarily to compensate for the hanger-like space at Memminger Auditorium, but primarily because at points they are electronically distorted for dramatic effect. The singers are also featured in recorded sections with a larger orchestra and choir.

Quartett by Leigh Webber Photography

Scene from Quartett at Charleston’s Memminger Auditorium during Spoleto Festival USA. Photo © Leigh Webber Photography.

The live chamber orchestra on stage with the singers performs a tour de force of disorienting and unsettling effects, and under the direction of John Kennedy blends so seamlessly with the pre-recorded and electronically altered musical episodes that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the live and recorded music.

But ultimately it’s a bleak and unedifying story focused on depraved individuals detached from their own humanity. The composer seems to suggest in his program notes that this is an unfortunate aspect of our world that he wants the audience to reflect upon, but it’s hard to understand how witnessing this in operatic form provides any meaningful insight. Still, it’s gratifying to know that there is a place at Spoleto Festival USA for this type of challenging contemporary work, and there was clearly an appreciative audience for it at the performance I attended.