Sunday, June 11, 2000

Spoleto casts musical spell

Operas, concerts set amid beauty of Charleston

        Every year I have gazed longingly at the Spoleto Festival USA's calendar, unable to go. This year, with the Music Critics Association of North America holding its annual meeting in Charleston, S.C., I managed to sample a weekend at Spoleto.

        Compared to the total offerings — 125 performances ranging from ballet, marionettes, operas and plays to circus performers — it was a tiny taste. (And it didn't include Piccolo Spoleto, a coinciding festival that emphasizes local performers.)

        But two operas, a chamber music concert, a visit to a plantation and several panel discussions later, I was hooked.

        The biggest bonus about attending concerts in Charleston is the ambience of the city. One of America's most historic cities, the leafy streetscape is picturesque at every turn, graced by the stately 18th and 19th-century mansions of wealthy merchants, lush gardens with fragrant magnolias, churches and colonnaded buildings steeped in American history.

        With the thousands of tourists who have flocked to Spoleto since it was founded 24 years ago have come other things: a wealth of fine dining, for example, and a sparkling new aquarium overlooking Charleston Harbor.

        This year, however, the pall of the Confederate flag controversy lay over the festival, resulting in an estimated 10 percent decline in attendance. There were some empty seats in the large Gaillard Auditorium for Verdi's opera, Luisa Miller. Perhaps because of the NAACP's tourism boycott, audiences were not very diverse.

Chinese opera
        The one-act, hour-long opera, The Silver River, composed and conducted by Bright Sheng to a libretto by David Henry Hwang, was widely praised by critics as the gem of Spoleto. It was premiered in 1997 at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and revised for Spoleto.

        For the work, based on a 5,000-year-old legend, The Cowherd and the Goddess-Weaver, Mr. Sheng seamlessly fused ancient and modern cultures. He assigned the role of the cowherd to a bel canto baritone (Michael Chioldi) and cast the Jade Emperor with a Peking Opera singer who sang in stylized Chinese (Jamie Guan). The Emperor's words were interpreted by a narrator, the Golden Buffalo (Karen Kandel).

        “I feel I'm a student of both cultures,” the Chinese-born composer said. “One has to have profound understanding of both sides; then it comes out naturally.”

        His instrumentation called for modern and ancient instruments, such as the pipa.

        “It's challenging music and it was really fun to put it together,” said clarinetist Michele Gingras, a professor at Miami University, who played clarinet and Chinese percussion instruments to punctuate the narration, on a side stage with two other players.

        Mr. Sheng is at work on a full-length opera, Madame Mao, slated for Santa Fe in 2003.

Dark dramas
        In the intimate Dock Street Theatre, Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride was performed by a young cast, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. Their concept was stark and moody, a psychological drama set in shades of gray against a backdrop of immense, sliding stone walls. The gray was only broken by a demon-red chorus of Furies.

        Iphigenie was sung with emotion (albeit somewhat unevenly) by former Cincinnati Opera Young Artist Andrea Trebnik. Surrounded by her priestesses, barefoot and clad in modern gray dresses, her opening storm-tossed scene against a bare rock wall reminded one of a fashion spread in Vogue magazine.

        It was a joy, though, to hear this music, with its wonderful arias and choruses, and the taut orchestra led by Steven Sloane. Among the men, Tracey Welborn (Pylade) and Andrew Schroeder (Oreste) were standouts.

        Verdi's Luisa Miller, directed by Christopher Alden, was positively grim, a dark, conceptual production with religious overtones. It also unfolded in shades of gray, with an immense wall that went up and down to hide or reveal the severe congregation of choristers behind it.

        Besides the singers, the stage was populated by a cast of shadows. There was no Tyrolean village scene. A massive rendering of Hans Holbein's The Dead Christ entombed above the stage was too obviously a reference to Luisa's sacrifice.

        The singing, however, was another story. As Luisa, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky displayed a powerful voice with beautiful color throughout her range. She swept through her runs, trills and arpeggios spectacularly and was a magnificent actress.

        Martin Thompson was excellent as Rodolfo, and bass-baritone Gidon Saks was a lecherous Wurm. Despite an announcement that he was not well, baritone William Stone performed admirably as Miller.

        Finally, a standing-room only crowd filled the Dock Street Theatre for a chamber music concert directed by Charles Wadsworth. The highlight was Janacek's “Kreutzer Sonata” String Quartet, performed by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. This ensemble of stunning homogeneity and virtuosity gave it an intense, emotional performance.

        The 17-day Spoleto Festival ends today. To receive a brochure about next year, May 25-June 10, call (843) 722-2764 or visit


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