Spoleto Festival USA 2005: Rare Fare and Innovative

Staging Dominate Operas

Winter shut-ins can begin planning their annual pilgrimage to Charleston, South Carolina. The world-class Spoleto Festival USA (May 27-June 12) has posted its schedule with diverse performances ranging from chamber music, choral music, dance, and opera to drama and the visual arts. Opera promises to generate the most excitement this year. There will be three operas – two are rarities, and innovative staging will be brought to bear for two productions.
When festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti staged Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro in the intimate Dock Street Theatre in 1989, it was a sellout before single tickets went on sale, and scalped tickets were eagerly sought. This year the larger and acoustically-appealing Memminger Auditorium will be used to present Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Fans of traditional staging may be wary. German Director Günter Krämer will stage the opera with some of the seating pulled to allow a forest representing all four seasons to envelope the entire auditorium. Sets will be designed by Ulrich Schulz and costumes will be created by Falk Bauer. Featured singers will be Nmon Ford as Don Giovanni and Ellie Dehn as Donna Elvira. Festival Music Director Emmanuel Villaume will conduct members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.
Composer Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) was anti-Nazi and half Jewish. He was removed from his post as co-director of the Cologne Hochschule für Musik in 1933 but managed to survive self-imposed exile within Germany. He described his most often revived opera, Die Vögel (The Birds), as an “airy play of the imagination, remembering that everything here is a game, a metaphor.” In New Grove II, Erik Levi praises the opera for its “mixture of brilliant characterization, effortless melodiousness, and subtle formal control.” Listeners ought to find his unique blending of elements of Wagner, Strauss, and Berlioz a welcome balm for the ears. The director will be Jonathan Eaton and the designer, Danila Korogodsky. Veteran opera conductor Julius Rudel will direct the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.
Ottorino Respighi composed La bella dormente nel bosco (Sleeping Beauty) (1922) for Vittorio Podrecca’s renowned puppet theater troupe. American director/puppeteer Basil Twist will stage a new production in the Dock Street Theatre, at the corner of Church and Queen Streets. Conductor Neal Goren will direct a cast of seven singers, choir, and orchestra, all in the pit, while Twist’s puppets weave their magic on stage.
Charles Wadsworth’s Bank of America Chamber Music series is the dependable backbone of the Festival. To a menu of chestnuts, unusual and rare combinations are added to spice things up. This critic welcomes a tendency toward the Francophile. Long-time favorite performers returning this year are the St. Lawrence String Quartet, the irrepressible clarinetist Todd Palmer, flutist Tara O’Conner, the gorgeous Chee-Yun the sprightly Corey Cerovsek, violins, violist Daniel Phillips, cellists Andrés Díaz and Alisa Weilerstein, and pianists Wendy Chen and Jeremy Denk. For the second year since Menotti’s complete split with the Festival, flutist Paula Robison, long-time co-director of the chamber music series in the ’70s and ’80s, will return. Eleven programs will be given three performances each. Weekend concerts tend to sell out but tickets can often be picked up thirty minutes before the performances.
Over the years, the weakest programming has often been the Festival Concert. From a critic’s or a frequent concert-goer’s point of view, the lineups have tended to be staples of any orchestra’s season or – worse – semi-pops. The June 5 concert program may be one of the best ever. The world premiere of a work commissioned from John Kennedy (director of the Festival’s avant-garde music) will be followed by Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, with Andrew von Oeyen as the soloist, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Festival Music Director Emmanuel Villaume will lead the enthusiastic and unjaded musicians of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.
Are you a fan of “cutting edge” music such as might be heard on a Ban on a Can Festival concert in New York City? If so, John Kennedy’s Music in Time series is right up your alley!
Five afternoon Intermezzi Concerts cover a wide range of unusual works and forms. The June 3 concert features Schoenberg the transcriber, with his arrangement of Strauss’ “Emperor Waltz” and Schoenberg the composer, with his seminal Chamber Symphony No. 1. A performance of Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer” completes the program. Pianist Olivier Reboul plays the complete Chopin Études on June 5 while the June 7 concert features a song recital by Philippe Castagner. More conventional orchestral fare is planned for the May 30 and June 10 concerts.
The Westminster Choir is a Festival favorite, and its June 2 and 9 concerts of largely a cappella music in the Cathedral of Saint Luke and Saint Paul will probably sell-out, although seats with hampered sight-lines may be available. (Charleston churches have lots of columns.) A June 8 choral/orchestral program in Gaillard Municipal Auditorium returns to standard fare with Brahms’ German Requiem.
Check the Spoleto Festival website for more information and descriptions of the numerous dance, drama, and jazz performances and visual arts events. Bask in the delights of exploring a wonderfully human-scaled historic city while choosing from a huge arts menu. And don’t forget to sample the City of Charleston’s own Piccolo Spoleto Festival, which complements the main offerings. Its schedule is usually posted in late spring, at http://www.piccolospoleto.com/.
by William Thomas Walker