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The Total Spoleto! - Overview of the 25th Annual Spoleto Festival USA

June 6, 2001 - Charleston, SC:


Origins

When Gian Carlo Menotti left Italy to come to America to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, members of his affluent and influential family had said, "Oh, don't go to America because it is a wasteland of culture and you'll never learn anything over there." Yet, when he arrived at the Curtis Institute, he found the opposite to be true. Compared to his native Italy, he found larger numbers of accomplished artists, as well as more widespread interest in the Arts. Menotti vowed that if he ever attained prominence he wanted to create a venue in which to present young American artists to the culturally influential in Europe. When he and his friend and companion Samuel Barber were students, the latter had said, "Art should not be just the froth on top of the main soup [but] should have a concrete, measurable effect in a community." With these dual goals in mind, they sought towns in Italy and in America in which to establish broad festivals of the Arts. They settled upon Spoleto in Italy, a town by bypassed by 20th century economic progress, populated by the elderly and the young. The festival, called Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds) was founded in 1958 and quickly became an international artistic success.

In 1972, the Italian festival's request for funding from the new National Endowment for the Arts for the American artists being sent abroad was turned down, but the Endowment urged Menotti to establish a similar festival in the southeastern United States where the Arts did not enjoy the prestige accorded them in the larger cities of the North. Among the cities suggested was Charleston, South Carolina. Christopher Keene, Spoleto's Music Director at that time, visited the city, and Charles Wadsworth, whom Menotti had asked to organize the popular midday chamber music series, was also familiar with Charleston from concerts with Beverly Sills and his Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Their input played a role in Menotti's visiting Charleston and deciding to choose it-in part because of its Old World charm and its easy accessibility.

After many difficulties and the efforts of many prominent Charlestonians, not least Mayor Joseph P. Riley and Dr. Theodore Stern, then Chancellor of the College of Charleston, the Spoleto Festival opened in 1977. Both Spoleto Festivals have always presented a full panoply of the Arts: opera, chamber music, orchestral concerts, theater, dance andvisual arts.

Menotti split with the Charleston festival in 1993 in a dispute over the visual arts as well as strong local resistance to his choice of his adopted son, Chip, as his successor. Incumbent Music Director Spiro Argiris, longtime Choral Director Joseph Flummerfelt and chamber music series founder Charles Wadsworth stayed with the American festival. After many close fiscal calls, it entered its 25th year with $18 million banked toward an endowment goal of $25 million.

Enticed by the weeklong coverage of the 1978 Spoleto USA by NBC's "Today Show," I attended the third edition of the festival in 1979. That was a ridiculously short two-day immersion, and I gradually extended my annual stay to a week. Because of the attractions on the City of Charleston's parallel Piccolo Festival (such as the Baltimore Consort in the past or, more recently, the Caramoor Virtuosi), I usually book the second week of the festival but since 2001 was the Silver Anniversary, I added the first week to my schedule. During my fifteen-day stay in Charleston, I managed to attend thirty-five Spoleto USA and Piccolo Spoleto events.

Opera

Giacomo Puccini's opera Manon Lescaut came at a make-or-break point in his early career. He had completed two modestly successful short operas (Le villi (1883) and Edgar (1889)) and badly needed a hit to continue patronage by the important publisher Giulio Ricordi. Despite the uneven quality of its libretto (hardly unknown in opera), the theatricality and above all its "passion and melody" helped make Manon Lescaut a hit although it is staged far less often than Puccini's better-known operas.

Luckily for this infrequently staged opera, all the major roles were strongly cast with fresh-voiced singers who could also act. Soprano Susan Patterson produced some of the finest Puccini singing that I have heard either at the Spoleto Festival or at various piedmont N.C. venues. Her voice was well supported and even throughout its range. Tenor Martin Thompson, whom I had heard in the festival's fine Luisa Miller last year, had a satisfying ringing tone as Manon's lover, Des Grieux. Bass Peter Volpe was in splendid voice as the menacing villain, Geronte and he readily dominated the stage; his only "flaw"-the director's, really-was that his matinee idol image was the opposite of what the character called for-a spent, aging man who has to buy companionship. Baritone Franco Pomponi was ideal as Manon's sleazy brother, a minor league villain ever on the make. Mezzo-soprano Reveka Evangelia Mavrovitis did all that she could as the madrigal singer in this production. Tenor Richard Troxell was a standout in the role of the insinuating and dominating Edmondo, the Master of Ceremonies. 

I failed, however,to be won over by the well-executed production of Stage Director/Set Designer Petrika Ionesco. The original libretto had enough loose ends without all the nonsense imposed by moving the action forward in time. Acts I and II were set in a twentieth century gangster's (Geronte's) nightclub with plenty of cross-dressers, prostitutes of both sexes and thugs. In all acts, the stage was dominated by a huge central tower. In the first two it was the center of a grand staircase. In the third act it adjoined a huge ocean liner that the gangsters were using to ship prostitutes to the deserts of Louisiana! In the last act, it seemed to be a oil derrick raining sand. 

Nonsensical anachronisms abounded. Apparently the early music movement had reached out and touched these sensitive French gangsters. The aforementioned mezzo-soprano Mavrovitis, joined by two chorus members, performed a madrigal-a necessity of every 20th century cathouse! The staging too often worked against the opera which otherwise had everything going for it. Based on this production, director Ionesco would be ideal for Berg's Lulu or almost anything by Kurt Weill, but considering the perversity of too many modern opera directors, he would probably stage them as Watteau-like pastorales just to be "original" or "creative."

After the contravening aspects of Ionesco's Manon Lescaut production came the minimalist staging of director Chen Shi-Zheng for Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. It is hard to believe that this unique English operatic effort was intended for a performance "by Young Gentlewomen at Josias Priest's boarding-school at Chelsa in 1689." 

The spare set consisted of a lone, angular, bare tree, some movable boulders and a stylized marble trapezoid . Mysteriously, at the tragic end of the opera, liquid poured upon the trapezoidand a portion dissolved away, leaving a sort of eroded rock garden instead of an Asian sand garden. It was quite an effect, but what did it mean?

The opera opened with twelve members of the multi-talented Westminster Choir performing and acting out the text of the rarely-performed allegorical prologue, which I had never heard, even on recordings. My only objection to the production was the over-the-top adolescent lewdness. Too many directors seem to think that audiences cannot infer anything subtle, that every metaphor needs ten-foot florescent letters.

All the singers were excellent. Soprano Heather Buck had a radiant clear voice as Dido's faithful handmaiden, Belinda. Met and N.Y. City Opera veteran mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek conveyed Dido's barely restrained longing for the handsome and heroic Aeneas. Baritone Nmon Ford had extraordinary stage presence which ought to carry him far in his art. More than any Aeneas that I have seen or heard on recordings, he fully manifested the deep conflict of the Trojan hero, the pull of the gods' ordained destiny for his people and his genuine love for Dido. Baritone Richard Hobson as the Sorceress and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as the First Witch and Second Woman were effective in their roles. Tenor Dennis Petersen was fine as the Sailor, whose love 'm and leave 'm aria has always been a highlight for me. In this production, he wore his boat and scurried about the stage in a blue-waves skirt, paddling first on one side and then the other.

The modern instruments of the members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra were stylishly led by conductor Grant Llewellyn who has had much experience with baroque opera. He had led a wonderful Spoleto production of Rameau's Platee in Dock Street Theatre in 1988 that had the then little known Renée Fleming in a secondary role. Spoleto Festival USA is an ideal place to catch the stars of tomorrow as they emerge on the scene.

Miscellaneous Concerts

The Intermezzi Concert Series held in Grace Episcopal Church has evolved over the years as a series of chamber orchestra concerts. There were three programs this year. On May 27, Mitchell Arnold conducted members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, which serves all festival orchestral functions, in vivid performances. Mozart's dramatic Overture to Don Giovanni opened the concert with verve. A fine, clear performance of Dvorak's Serenade for Winds and Strings, Op. 44, came next. The concert ended with a favorite among Haydn's London Symphonies, No. 104; alas, truly quiet playing was lacking. 

The Music in Time Series directed by John Kennedy has tended to feature most of the truly avant-garde music at Spoleto USA. At a concert several years ago, the musicians sat at various points about a church hitting rocks together. I seldom patronize these offerings, but for some reason this year's series was more substantial. The second of four concerts was a Ruth Crawford Seeger Centenary Celebration that consisted entirely of works from different aspects of her career. Ruth Crawford married the famous American musicologist Charles Seeger, and among their children was the folksinger and activist Pete Seeger. The family members were devoted communists and the fact that that blight regarded creative individual composition as bourgeois led her to abandon these early efforts in favor of agit-pop. 

Contemporary music specialist and pianist Sarah Cahill opened the May 31 program with Seeger's startling Nine Preludes for Piano, composed when she was in her twenties. Piano Study in Mixed Accents came next; while lasting under a minute and a half, it involved a palindrome and allowed the performer three choices of how to play a fortissimo. Mezzo-soprano Reveka Evangelia Mavrovitis sang Three Songs set to texts by Carl Sandburg--"Rat Riddles,""Prayers of Steel" and "In the Tall Grass." Some of these were accompanied by an orchestra dominated by percussion, but oboist Ariana Ghez was splendid. Next came the two-section Music for a Small Orchestra (1926). It began slowly; a repeated figure in the piano part was later taken up by the cello while the rest of the orchestra "hovered" over that bass. Parts of this movement, marked "Slow and Pensive," reminded me of the ambiguities of Ives's "Housatonic at Stockbridge." The concluding movement, "In roguish humor, not fast," featured pizzicatos in the violins and cellos and prominent solos for the bassoon and clarinet. Seeger's folksong work was touched upon in the concert's conclusion when everyone was encouraged to take part in three selections from American Folk Songs for Children.

A May 31 choral/orchestral concert in Gaillard Municipal Auditorium brought a welcome change from a pattern of alternating Brahms or Verdi Requiems that also afflict our Triangle area.... The ever-reliable Joseph Flummerfelt directed his virtuoso Westminster Choir and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra in a remarkably clear and perfectly balanced Mozart Requiem. All the soloists-soprano Monique McDonald, mezzo-soprano Katherine Goeldner, tenor Don Frazure, and bass Julien Robbins-were equally excellent, and all four exhibited fine trills. Members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus helped fill out the ensemble for a delightfully pungent performance of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms.

Over the years, the Festival Concert series has tended to consist of bread-and-butter repertory, often bordering on pops. This year's concert was led by the new music director Emmanuel Villaume, who inspired passionate playing from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra in Gaillard Auditorium on June 6. Since most of the players are recent conservatory graduates, they bring freshness to what would sometimes be stale fare for seasoned professionals. 

The concert opened with a fairly standard reading of Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from the opera Tristan und Isolde. The pacing seemed a little faster than usual but the string choirs were as fine as the brass. I liked the solos for the English horn, bass clarinet and horns near the end. The concert ended with a rousing performance of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique .

The official Spoleto USA website: http://www.spoletousa.org/