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The 32nd Edition of Spoleto Festival USA Was Red Hot in Multiple Senses

June 7, 2008 - Charleston, SC:

"Red" and "hot" can be used in several meanings to give an assessment of this second week of the 17-day Spoleto Festival USA, which began May 22. The human scale of Charleston's Historic District was a major factor in composer Gian Carlo Menotti's decision to locate the second, "New World," branch of his "Festival of Two Worlds" here, in 1977. His unique, broad arts festival was founded in Spoleto, Italy, in 1958. After a rough period following Menotti's breaking of all ties to Charleston in 1993, the US festival has had solid artistic and financial success. Weather-wise, this was one of the hotter ones, with the second week averaging 95° F, mitigated by the sea breeze.

The bleeding budgets of the Menotti era were followed by twelve seasons in the black, led mostly by General Director Nigel Redden. The current economic downturn, combined with a late cut of over $250,000 from the state budget, led to red ink for 2008. This may curtail the 2009 Festival's presentations.

Operas were a major success, with Rossini's La Cenerentola a sure crowd-pleaser. A significantly streamlined version of the original score was used for the revival of Anthony Davis' Amistad, which was deeply moving and thought-provoking. Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and his un-jaded musicians played the socks off the repertory. The big news concerned the beloved chamber music series, established at Menotti's instigation in Italy in 1958 and then brought to Charleston by series Artistic Director Charles Wadsworth. During the eleventh concert of the present season, Wadsworth announced he would be 80 years old in September and would end his professional performing career in June 2009 and step down as director of the chamber music series at the end of next year's festival.

Anthony Davis based his opera Amistad on an historical incident, the violent mutiny of captives from Sierra Leone in 1839 aboard the slave ship Amistad and their trial in Connecticut in 1841. They were defended by former President John Quincy Adams; their subsequent acquittal turned upon their never having been slaves on a plantation. This important early victory for abolitionists has been the subject of novels, a play, and a movie. The libretto, sung in English, was written by the composer and his cousin, Thulani Davis. The Chicago Lyric Opera premiered Amistad in 1997 in a version calling for much larger forces than the trimmed-down version Villaume requested from Davis for performance in Charleston. (There had been no further performances of the original version for eleven years.)

Amistad was given "in the round" in the newly-restored Memminger Auditorium. Most of the action took place on a huge oval stage in the form of an official seal. The audience seating was on the southeast and northwest ends of the hall, and the orchestra was in the middle of the south side. A pit would have helped keep the orchestra from covering some of the singers, some of the time. A high, raised area in the southwest corner served a space for the mysterious Goddess of the Waters and, later, for the judges. Tables and couches in the northwest corner were used for onlookers and reporters. A banister'd crosswalk, high above the middle of the stage, served as a space for soldiers or onlookers. The Director was Sam Helfrich, the Set Designer was Caleb Hale Wertenbaker, and the Lighting Director was Peter West. The mix of contemporary and period costumes was designed by Kaye Voyce. The Spoleto Festival Orchestra was augmented with jazz and percussion instruments. To the large cast were added members of the superb Westminster Choir. On June 2, conductor Villaume kept tight control and coordination between the stage and the adjacent orchestra. This proximity led to fleeting balance problems during loud passages. The composer may wish further to reconsider his score's dynamics in order to prevent covering the singers.

There were far too many cast members to comment on each. Davis adds two mythical African Gods to the history-based action. The Goddess of the Waters was portrayed by soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, who appeared as a distant vision in Act I. Dressed in a business suite, she sang a diffuse aria, "They come as if from the Heavens," protesting the Middle Passage's rain of dying Africans into her waters in Act II. Tenor Michael Forest's performance as the Trickster God, Esu, was a tour de force. The part lies high and calls for flexibility and power as well as considerable physical movement. A program note describes Esu as "the spirit of rebellion, uncertainty, and mischief." Esu can only be seen by the Africans. As the mutiny leader, Cinque, bass-baritone Gregg Baker combined enormous stage presence with a powerful, evenly supported voice that had a pleasing timbre. Both Forest and Baker could be easily understood. Excellent subtitles helped clarify the enunciation of many other singers when they faced away from the listeners. Soprano Janinah Burnett, as the captive Margru, gave a wrenching performance of "They wanted a girl," describing her separation from a nursing child. Bass Jeffrey Wells' fine acting combined with a robust voice brought the brutal slave trader Don Pedro to life. Bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck brought a quiet dignity to the role of President John Quincy Adams. (CVNC reviewed his fine and even-toned performance of Leporello, in Opera Carolina's Don Giovanni, in March.) Baritone Fikile Mvinjelwa, as the slave cabin boy Antonio, portrayed the survival instincts of a person born into slavery. Tenor Raúl Melo brought a firm, strongly-projected voice to the role of the Navigator, who tricked the slaves by sailing west at night.

Listening to and watching Amistad is not a comfortable experience. The libretto has white characters readily using "forbidden" epithets (n*****, c***, etc.) with relish, along with blatant, unselfconscious racism. Davis' musical score is interesting, having blues and jazz elements mixed with sophisticated rhythmic complexity. The multiple Rashomon-like repetitions of the murder of most of the Amistad's crew in Act II could benefit from a further tightening up, and the long Act I might be better if divided into two acts. Davis's opera deserves further revivals because much of its music rises far above mere busy-work and is imminently listenable. The subject matter continues to haunt not only the South but also the entire Nation.

The Festival's staging of La Cenerentola, by Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), was successful in every way. As heard in Gaillard Municipal Auditorium on June 6, an unusually strong vocal cast formed a true ensemble, playing up the comedic possibilities as each reacted to the others. Evocative sets were readily changed, and imaginative use was made of lighting, especially projection of images. Conductor Matteo Beltrami led an alert and vibrant Spoleto Festival Orchestra whose young musicians played as if sitting on the edges of their seats. Members of the Westminster Choir brilliantly embodied courtiers and servants.

The central theme of the many Cinderella stories, some dating from far earlier than Perrault's Mother Goose version, which was published in the 17th century, is that of a child, unfairly treated by a parent, who finds, miraculously, a better life. Most stories have an evil stepmother. Since a "bad mother" would not play well in Italy, Rossini's version finds the heroine, Angelina (known as Cinderella), treated as a low servant by her stepfather, Don Magnifico, and his two daughters, Clorinda and Thisbe. Prince Ramiro, disguised as his valet Dandini, searches for a suitable wife. Dandini plays up the role of Prince to the hilt and beyond. Ramiro's philosopher-teacher, Alidoro, is the non-magical agent of change. Disguised as a beggar, Alidoro quickly finds the stepsisters to be selfish harpies but Angelina is the ideal mate for the Prince.

The title role of La Cenerentola is written for that rare bird, a coloratura contralto. Possessing a deep, strong, and flexible lower range, mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy was an ideal Angelina. She tossed off Rossini's florid fioriture fearlessly, brilliantly decorating her vocal line. Her technical skill was matched by tenor Victor Ryan Robertson as Prince Ramiro. His beautiful, warm tone was supported by vocal power unusual in a Rossini tenor. (CVNC reviewed his extraordinary Don Ottavio in Opera Carolina's March production of Don Giovanni.) Bass Paolo Pecchioli's sepulchral voice brought plenty of gravitas to the role of Alidoro. Baritone Bruno Taddia, as Dandini, combined mastery of comic, exaggerated gestures with a burnished and solid voice. Baritone Timothy Nolen was a star of the very first opera I heard at the Third Spoleto Festival USA in 1977; he appeared again as recently as Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny for the 2007 festival. His voice had all the flexibility needed for Don Magnifico's rapid singing, and his comic timing was superb. As the termagant stepsister Clorinda, soprano Jennifer Check was magnificent, literally throwing herself into the high comedy of the role. Her even and strongly-supported solo voice has long been admired at past festivals. (She began as a member of the Westminster Choir.) Beside showpiece arias for the lead singers, La Cenerentola has wonderful duets, such as Don Magnifico's and Dandini's "Signore, una parola" in Act II and two sextets, Act I's "Parlar, pensar, vorrei" and Act II's "Che sari!," with its onomatopoeia exploiting the rolled Italian "r."

Director Charles Roubaud set La Cenerentola in the 18th century and gave full value to the work's farcical possibilities. Emmanuelle Favre designed the set, which was readily changed from run-down mansion to palace and back (without an intermission) by rotating units and pulling others into the fly gallery. Lighting was designed by Vladimir Lukasevich, and the video designer was Gilles Papain. Alidoro "caused" a seeming tapestry in Don Magnifico's mansion to show the rippling pool before the Prince's palace and the movements of carriages — this inspired "ahs" from the packed Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. The fine costumes, a mix of period attire and showier garb, were the work of Katia Duflot. The stepsisters' outfits were a hoot! I lost count of the curtain calls brought about by the prolonged and well-earned standing ovation.