Spoleto USA long ago outgrew its Italian namesake, and only one or two annual festivals can be found anywhere on Earth that vie with the Charleston extravaganza in scope and highbrow quality. But while Spoleto's offerings are admirably chosen and presented, servings remind you of haute French cuisine -- tending to be smallish in size.
The famed lunchtime chamber concerts and lesser-known pre-dinner choral and contemporary music recitals swell to no more than 80 minutes. With rare exceptions, such as last year's marvelous Pride and Prejudice, theater offerings usually clock in at less than two hours. Even at the lordly opera -- an artform synonymous with bombast -- Spoleto is even less taxing on patrons' attention spans than Opera Carolina.
You can divine the subliminal reasoning. Perhaps it's mercantile greed, getting customers in out of performance venues so they're zooming to multiple events every day -- and patronizing Charleston's renowned brigade of fine restaurants. I've sampled as many as five full-length performances in a single day -- without fasting!
Not this year, baby! Spoleto is ballyhooing a Chinese opera that's over four centuries old and takes some 18 hours to perform. Instead of bringing it to Gaillard Auditorium on the opening night of the festival, The Peony Pavilion is camping out at Memminger Auditorium -- with over 600 costumes to clothe 160+ characters and an 1800-gallon pond populated with ducks, goldfish, and water flora. The epic won't begin until Thursday, June 3, six days after Spoleto's opening ceremony, and will be presented in cycles of six three-hour performances over four days.
That works out to six hours of opera-going on Saturday and Sunday. But if Peony Pavilion isn't quite the death knell of brevity at Spoleto, it isn't the only presentation for 2004 that busts loose from the festival's previous constraints.
DJ Spooky is in the house! A self-proclaimed philosopher, aural architect, hip-hop practitioner and remix wizard, DJ (alias Paul D. Miller) is a fixture on the New York club scene. He's on his outre way to Sottile Theatre with a performance piece that reconstructs D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, intercutting the controversial 1915 silent film with fresh video and accompanying the visuals with a live mix of an original Daniel Roumain violin composition, jungle and hip-hop.
DJ's Rebirth of a Nation, presented June 8-12, promises to explore the migration of America's myths from the dawn of modernity to the new millennium. If it follows in the Spoleto tradition of John Cage and Meredith Monk, Rebirth will be a colossal bore, sending spectators screaming out into the street in search of Griffith's original work.
But that's the glory of Spoleto. Grounded in the classics and chummy with the leisure class, this is one big-budget festival that's unafraid of taking chances, exploring new vistas, challenging the status quo, or even flopping occasionally on its ass. Here are the likely standouts for 2004, playing this Friday through June 13.
Forbidden Christmas or The Doctor and the Patient (May 28-June 12): On the heels of his notorious stint on Sex and the City, aging ballet icon Mikhail Baryshnikov knows better than to get back on his toes. He's headlining a stage fantasia that plunges us into the deranged mind of a Soviet physician who believes he's a car. Misha will use his unique gifts to simulate ignition.
A Large Attendance in the Antechamber (May 31-June 7): Brian Lipson brings his one-man show to the Port City, impersonating Victorian scientist Sir Francis Galton -- notable for his quirky ideas about race and beauty -- in a piece that was acclaimed at Edinburgh 2000.
Aside from the foray into jumbo-sized Kunju opera from China, Spoleto is featuring two intriguing European imports.
Ariadne auf Naxos (May 29-June 12): Richard Strauss's opera-within-an-opera is a curiously touching hodgepodge of chamber opera and commedia dell'arte. The Spoleto edition brings back Lyubov Petrova, the glittering songbird of last year's Lakme, caging her in cozy Dock Street Theatre.
I Capuletti e i Montecchi (May 28-June 11): Before you get the notion that Bellini's opera is the spaghetti version of Romeo & Juliet, you need to recall that the famed star-crossed couple were citizens of Verona. Director Paul Curran promises a contemporary update starring Hoo-Ryoung Hwang as Giulietta.
There's more jazz than ever before at Spoleto, at more Charleston venues. Brazilian hotshot Renato Braz (May 28-29) makes his American debut under the magnolias at The Cistern; Dee Dee Bridgewater (June 5) gives an audience in massive Gaillard Municipal Auditorium; and Wycliffe Gordon & Eric Reed (June 10-12) play their sets in the Recital Hall at Albert Simons Center. The Fred Hirsch Ensemble (June 3) brings jazz to Sottile Theatre for the first time -- plus vocalists Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry offering a new Hersch work inspired by Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
Year after year, Spoleto's dazzling dance lineup is the unacknowledged jewel in the festival's crown. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (May 29-31) leads the triumphal parade into Gaillard this year, offering two programs, one including the Emmy Award-winning Hymn with libretto by Anna Deveare Smith, the other a gathering of Ailey classics. Moscow Ballet Theatre (June 11-12) showcases star ballerina Nina Ananiashvili and the American premiere of Leah set to the music of Leonard Bernstein's The Dybbuk.
Complete info on Spoleto Festival USA is available online at spoletousa.org. Plunge into the universe of Piccolo Spoleto at piccolospoleto.org.