Full houses for much of last year’s 25th anniversary of the Spoleto Festival USA were not unexpected. With both the economic recession and the post-September 11th drop in concert attendance experienced in our area, nearly full houses throughout the second week of this year’s festival were a pleasant surprise. In past seasons, large numbers of empty seats were common at midweek, even at the ever-popular chamber music series in Dock Street, but this year, even at performances of operas, late in their runs, there were only scattered empty seats at the least desirable sight lines. Acoustical improvements to Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, which included the paneling off of some 480 dreadful seats under the balcony, were noticeable in the orchestra seating. The beloved Chamber Music Series, still directed by Charles Wadsworth, was up to its usual high standard. Both the “Wagner and Beyond Concert” and the Choral Concert featured intriguing fare, and in the former case, the debut of a “new” old auditorium. The operas featured unusually strong casts of young singers and stylish orchestral playing. They also featured “activist” directors very much in the current European fashion, and thereby hangs a tale.

Wagner’s Flying Dutchman : The Case of the “Myth-ing” Ships

Under the hyperactive conducting of Spoleto Festival USA Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, the Spoleto Festival Orchestra provided every wave of storm-tossed seawater that Richard Wagner demanded. There were no glitches in the tight ensemble between the pit and the soloists and massed forces of the ever reliable men and women of the Westminster Choir. This was believed to be the first American production of the original 1841 Dresden version of the opera. In addition to restoring some music and performing the opera without intermissions- it lasted two hours and ten minutes, non-stop – Senta’s big aria was a full tone higher than usual, and Wagner’s original first names for her father and her boyfriend were used, so “Daland” became “Donald” and “Erik,” “Georg.”

The men of the Westminster Choir were superb in the important storm music and the vocal duel between the crews of, Donald’s and the Dutchman’s ships. Special praise goes to the women of the choir for performance beyond the desire of the composer! More anon.

Bass Daniel Borowski was delightful as the money grubbing Donald. His deep voice anchored his scenes and his little dance of greed and glee was full of character. The light, warm tenor of Don Frazure was perfect for the melodious music of the Steersman. Bass-baritone Mark Delavan was almost a force of nature as the accursed Dutchman, in firm voice from the huge opening monolog until the end, displaying fleeting hints of his tattered humanity. Tenor Adam Klein fully conveyed S enta’s practical and increasingly appalled intended Georg. Strongly sung by soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonet, Senta was wholly obsessed by the legend of the Dutchman from the beginning. Her well-supported and even voice sailed over Wagner’s orchestration. The dark voice of mezzo-soprano Jane Shaulis as Mary, Senta’s Nurse, provided contrast.

Musically, everything was more than one often dares to expect in today’s opera houses. So what was missing? Two ships, a dark and rugged coast, lots of spinning wheels and for that matter, the sea. To get back to the basic myth and in an effort to “focus attention on the psychology of the characters and the nuance of their body language,” Director Chen Shi-Zheng removed almost everything material. His aim was a blend of the abstract expressionism of the Chinese opera tradition with folklore and Western music. The steeply-raked stage was blue plexiglas. The men of the Westminster Choir, plausibly costumed, indulged in pulling motions of invisible hauling of mooring lines. Alas, Senta’s spinning companions didn’t spin. Instead they wore absurd hoop skirts and strange three-piece plexiglas hats with spinning propellers during the Spinning Chorus, and we saw rather more of them than some thought necessary. Derisive laughter greeted their implausible cavortings in their ungainly accoutrements. Mary looked like she had escaped from portraying the Red Queen in a production of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland . Oh, for an abstract Bayreuth disc or sail from the Wieland Wagner years! Most of the acting and stage movement was highly stylized. The glowering Dutchman’s movements were almost glacial. Instead of spinning, the women danced about, shaking their “booties” and spinning their ridiculous headgear. Worst of all, Wagner’s central theme of man’s redemption by the selfless love of a woman was lost in this staging. After the Dutchman and Senta in turn took their leaps off the Plexiglas deck, the opera concluded with a stage-filling waterfall. Any clear redemption was in the music alone.

Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte : Twice Upon a Mattress

In the performance of Mozart’s masterpiece on June 6, all things musical were well in hand. In the pit, the members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra played with precision, style and feeling under the experienced baton of conductor George Cleve, a protégé of the late George Szell. Instead of a harpsichord, a fortepiano, played by Michael Baitzer, supported the recitatives. Baritone Julien Robbins was a warm-voiced and humorously cynical Don Alfonso in a performance in which every small gesture was telling. Increasingly believable acting combined with a well-supported, even tenor voice made Jesus Garcia an ideal, headstrong Ferrando. The solid baritone of Christopher Schaldenbrand was perfect for his more level-headed friend, Guglielmo. Both were adept in the full use of facial expression and the timing of subtle and not-so-subtle gestures used to convey character. Stage director Pierre Constant had both sisters exaggerate their different temperaments even more than is usual. Soprano Angela Fout spent much of the opera in high dudgeon as the upholder of ideal constancy. In sharp contrast, mezzo-soprano Jossie Pérez wasn’t just a little tempted by a chance for a casual affair – she was as randy as a stoat. Both had even, well-supported voices that blended and contrasted well. In too many productions, the casting of the role of their easily-bribed facilitator, the maid Despina, ephasizes coarse comedy rather than smooth vocalism. Soprano Lyubov Petrova had all the stage business in hand while possessing an outstanding soprano voice, warm and even throughout its wide range.

Reference to mattresses in the title alludes to the spare production of Director Constant and Set Designer Roberto Platé. The opera was performed in the “faux Georgian” Dock Street Theatre. The centerpiece was a large mattress with long, hanging bed curtains. The stage area was decorated to mirror the theater, with boxes, columns and lamps. Supernumeraries were used as a “stage” audience. The opening scene with Don Alfonso, Ferrando and Guglielmo was a little too busy but plausibly showed the two friends as sparing partners in a gym. During Act I and half of Act II, the two sisters were either abed on the mattress or still in their bedclothes. The staging of the grief of the sisters as their lovers supposedly leave for war was standard fare

Thereafter, the staging was even more bizarre. Dorabella wasn’t slightly tempted by Ferrando in disguise but smoldered instead; apparently, there was no thought of “safe sex” as the sisters dashed off with their “new Albanians.” There was a needless and jarring change of tradition when Despina, disguised as a doctor, used a salve instead of the usual giant horseshoe magnet to “cure” the self-poisoned foreigners. Da Ponte’s reference to “Mesmerizing” was still in place both in that scene and as in a now-meaningless musical reference in the denouement.

Dorabella’s understudy, Mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod, is a Triad connection, whose only appearance on June 6 was as a supernumerary. She had impressed us in UNCG opera productions and most recently as Orlovsky in the Greensboro Opera’s Fledermaus . Having completed her Fletcher Opera fellowship, she will be with the Connecticut Opera Company this fall. We expect to hear great things from her in the future.

Hints of Innovation in Two Choral and Orchestral Concerts

A satisfying orchestral concert centering on Wagner took place June 3 in one of the oldest venues in Charleston. Memminger Auditorium, built in 1939 as a WPA project, was abandoned by the 1970s after the opening of Gaillard, and its roof was badly damaged by Hurricane Hugo. It has a huge stage, large enough to have been used for basketball, and seats 800. Festival Music Director Emmanuel Villaume chose a broad range of mostly operatic preludes and overtures and provided well-focused and succinct comments from the stage about music that influenced Wagner or was inspired by him. A rousing performance of Wagner’s Rienzi Overture, with brilliant work from the enthusiastic brass players of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, preceded Albert Lortzing’s Overture to Die Wildschütz, a rarity outside Germany. In addition to fine solos from the principal violin, cello and flute, there were wonderful passages for the horns. Fine standard interpretations were given of the Dresden version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture and the “Good Friday Spell” from Parsifal . The tempi were slow in Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung but the whole performance was gripping.

The most provocative comments and music came with the “Scène au Tombeau” from Hector Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette . From the score, Villaume translated the razor-edged, sarcastic comments of the composer to the conductor of the original production, roughly demanding that this “pearl of music” not be cast before the “swine of an ordinary audience.” Villaume said that Berlioz was “not a nice Frenchman,” and his criticism of contemporary audiences was withering, even in translation. Most thought provoking was Villaume’s statement that this music of Berlioz showed the musical road that the 20th century didn’t take, using approaches never followed up. In the evening’s musical context, Berlioz’s work was the most revolutionary and astonishing. The special focus this program provided should be a feature of future Festival offerings. The size of Memminger Auditorium is ideal but once the word gets out, more than one performance of concerts given there will be needed.

A choral-orchestral concert in Gaillard Auditorium on June 5 provided welcome relief from customary requiems of Verdi and Brahms. Joseph Flummerfelt conducted the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, soloists, and the Westminster Choir, to which was added the Charleston Symphony Chorus for the last work.

The novelty was Arthur Honegger’s King David, a symphonic poem after a drama by René Monax. Soprano Courtenay Budd delivered her lines with a purity that floated over the small orchestral forces. The Westminster Choir was clear as a bell. When she sang the lines for the Witch of Endor, mezzo-soprano Jane Shaulis was heavily amplified for an eerie effect. The solid bass-baritone of Julien Robbins was heard only via speakers. Actor Thomas Shaw did all that was possible with the large portion allotted to the Narrator. I was grateful for the chance to hear the work but have always found that the use of the spoken word kills a piece of music. Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” which concluded the program, received as stirring a performance as could be wished. Key to this was the outstanding singing of boy soprano Francois Suhr; his well-supported and pure line was superior to all others I have heard in this role.