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Life is good at Spoleto USA

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Sitting upstairs at Poogan's Porch Restaurant on Memorial Day and digging into a concoction of grouper, goat cheese, and calamata olives -- drizzled with about seven times the butter my doctor would approve of -- I couldn't help thinking. Life is good. Theater, opera, dance, and music are glorious celebrations -- and Spoleto Festival is a Carolina epiphany.

The 26th edition of the greatest performing arts extravaganza on the planet has been free of capricious rains. And for its first gala weekend, a restraining order was issued on high, delaying the usual onset of torrid temperatures. As such, the holiday weekend filled the cobbled streets of Charleston with as many tourists and festival-goers as I've ever seen.

But the impact of the drooping economy was more evident last weekend as traffic lanes in the historic downtown lightened -- and temperatures climbed to 100 degrees in the Port City. Here are the highlights of my 2002 pilgrimage to Spoleto.

Dance

Opening weekend at Spoleto had a distinctively African flavor this year, largely due to the fine pair of dance companies that made the trek to the Port City. Dance Theatre of Harlem reveled unabashedly in the music, the ceremony, and the spectacular tribal costumes of the Dark Continent in their first two pieces at Gaillard Audiorium. They opened with a South African Suite, created by a troika that included Augustus van Heerden, Laveen Naidu, and company founder Arthur Mitchell.

Results of this choreography by committee were predictably uneven, best when it veered toward a sultry, sun-baked sensuality. Geoffrey Holder's Dougla was far more powerful and cohesive, representing the flamboyant ritual and celebration of a wedding between two "Dougla" folk, whose bloodlines are a mix of Hindu and African.

After this intense immersion in African tradition, we skipped more lightly with Robert Garland's Return, set to a suite of soul singles by Aretha Franklin and James Brown. Virtuosity, athleticism, and charismatic individuality were all on the same lofty level we behold routinely from our own North Carolina Dance Theatre.

Compagnie Kafig brought a Parisian sensibility to that most American of dance confections, hip-hop. As many as five members of this appealing troupe coordinated their charismatic skills simultaneously in Dix Versions. Sometimes the pieces were precisely choreographed. But these collective efforts moved seamlessly into segments that showcased the performers' individual personalities and routines. The most spectacular of their specialties were lightning-quick hand movements, moonwalking, sending loosey-goosey bodywaves rolling down to their toes, and the most amazing head spinning I've seen.

Anybody who doubted that hip-hop belonged in a prestigious international arts festival walked out of Garden Theatre a true believer.

Salia ni Seydou continues the African invasion this weekend.

Theatre

There's an obvious balance between the two miniatures playwright Brian Friel is bringing to the intimate Dock Street Theatre -- and a subtle consistency. The Bear, Friel's freewheeling new translation of an old Chekhov favorite, is 35 minutes of pure farcical silliness. Brendan Coyle is all brutish materialism in the title role, implacably demanding the money owed to him by pathologically mournful widow, Elena Popova -- until the woman in black turns tigress in her resistance. Then Gregory Smirnov hilariously transforms into brutish romantic, more determined to possess Elena than her delinquent rubles.

Eamon Morissey, as the unctuous and cowardly servant Luka, comically upstages his mistress until the denouement. But of course, Elena's transformation -- from sanctimonious mourner to lascivious lover -- is the most hilarious turn of all, and Elizabeth Dermot Walsh executes it brilliantly.

A tasty appetizer, then, for Friel's own Afterplay, a meatier piece that reprises two Chekhov characters some 20 years after we last saw them. We revisit Sonya Serebriakova from Uncle Vanya and Andrey Prozorov, the profligate sib in the famed Three Sisters.

What elevates this hour-long tete-a-tete in a spectral Moscow cafe is the acting summit between two decorated pros, Penelope Wilton and John Hurt. In such fine hands, it's hard to say which of these well-mannered folk is the more frustratingly pathetic. Is it Elena, with her ridiculous devotion to a man who hardly realizes she exists, or is it Andrey, unable to break away from his stultifying country life and deteriorating terribly as a result?

We're truly fortunate to see both. If the stormy coupling between Gregory and Elena is an absurdly precipitous application of the carpe diem ethos, then the fastidious failure of Andrey and Elena to connect is a more emotionally compelling endorsement of enlightened opportunism.

Opera/Music Theatre

Thumbs up for the two marquee operas at this year's festival. The Flying Dutchman gains approval with the imposing vocalism of Mark Delavan as the eternally roving seaman and Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet's fervid Senta, the sassy maiden determined to release him from his centuries of suffering.

Charbonnet's portrayal was almost as powerful as Delavan's, quite a feat in light of his stark manliness, and quite a rarity in an era when few soprano voices carry such heft. Set design by Gordana Svilar was earnest, poetic, and not nearly as wrong-headed as Chen Shi-Zheng's dramatic staging and Anita Yavich's downright perverse costumes.

The Dutchman's black vinyl outfit had him looking like a saturnine version of the Gorton's fisherman. But the tights worn by his crew branded them as refugees from a ballet school, and the steersman's oddly bulky costume evoked memories of Gumby, turned purple.

I won't fault Spoleto music director Emmanuel Villaume for giving America its first peek at the original 1841 Wagner orchestration premiered in Dresden two years after its completion. Claims that this is an authoritative version of Dutchman, worthy of superseding the familiar 1896 edition, won't stand up to scholarly scrutiny, but it's fascinating to see Wagner's original concept.

What's inexcusable is Shi-Zheng's lame, spacey blurring of the distinctively different ending. Instead of ascending gloriously into the sky with her beloved, Senta now tosses herself into the sea after he abandons her. But if you don't dutifully read the printed synopsis -- and an essay printed earlier in the lavish festival program book -- you'll be clueless about what happens next. The Dutchman and his crew sink down into the sea, and the sailor's finally released from his wanderings. But neither event transpires onstage or in dialogue.

Senta's suicide, I must concede, was a thing of wonder. Waves of blue brought the entire rear scrim of the stage vibrantly alive, powerfully evoking the massive lethal majesty of the sea. Along with the singing and acting, that one bit of staging fairly well redeemed the conceptual mishmash.

No reservations whatsoever about Cosi fan Tutte, lusciously presented at intimate Dock Street Theatre. The Mozart comedy is transported to the early 20th Century without ill effect. Given the fact that Cosi timeshares the Dock Street stage with the Friel twinbill, Roberto Plate delivers the most impressive set design I've seen at the little old theater. It's a classically contoured, balconied space that imparts just the right sense of formality and leisure for this sort of intriguing romp pitting two spirited sisters against their rascally fiances. Lili Kendaka's flamboyant costumes add a welcome exotic touch, particularly when the guys return in disguise to test their brides-to-be.

While the du Ponte libretto isn't always a model of compact comedy, the music -- brightly conducted by George Cleve -- is a constant exhilaration. Chief attraction here for opera lovers in search of new talent is soprano Angela Fout as the more chaste of the sisters. The lady is an outright fox -- with no shortages whatsoever in the vocal and acting spheres.

Far more appealing were the American premiere of Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries and Chen Shi-Zheng's Ghost Lovers. Broomhill Opera condenses a string of biblical stories in the form of medieval mystery plays, urbanizing and transporting it to contemporary South Africa amid an orgy of dance and percussion. Truly fascinating and uplifting.

Zheng's concontion, termed "A Kunqu Opera," makes precise comical opera out of an episode from a 14th-century Chinese novel. A gorgeous ghost lady murdered by a jealous husband comes back to seduce her timorous boyfriend. Outstanding performances from Qian Yi, as the ghost, and Guo Yi.

Classical

Some outstanding music-making this year in the Chamber Music Series. The St. Lawrence String Quartet set a high standard on the opening weekend, playing a burning rendition Bartok's String Quartet #3. Finnish violinist Elina Vahala and pianist Wendy Chen more than met the challenge on the second weekend with an electrifying account of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, one of the pinnacles of the repertoire. Ditto for a group including Chen and festival veterans Chee-Yun and Andres Diaz as they blazed through the monumental Tchaikovsky Piano Trio. The lovely Chee-Yun has never played with more compelling emotion. She and Chen are holdovers for the upcoming final weekend.

But the prime revelation at this year's lunchtime concerts came in a mystical piece for clarinet and string quartet by this year's resident composer, Osvaldo Golijov. The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind was laced with an intoxicating mixture of meditative and klezmer flavorings. A premiere of a new Golijov piece, Tenebrae, was played last weekend right before the Kreutzer -- by Palmer, the St. Lawrence, and soprano Courtenay Budd -- with the composer in attendance. Exciting atmosphere, and Budd's artistry seems to grow every year.

Other than that, I was most blown away discovering Chausson's imposing Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet. Glorious thunder and sunlight.

Jazz

With the Friel twinbill running 45 minutes longer than advertised, I was unable to catch up with Toots Thielemans. But I snagged substantial portions of two other late-night concerts. Both served to confirm that Wachovia Jazz director Michael Grofsorean hasn't lost his unerring touch in selecting and presenting his festival lineups.

Tierney Sutton jammed agreeably with her trio on that first cool Saturday night at Spoleto's customary outdoor venue, The Cistern. Her instrumental approach to her scat vocals was evidenced most clearly on tunes rarely associated with singers, including Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma," Miles Davis' "Blue in Green," and Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks."

Hank Jones brought an exquisitely swinging trio to Albert Simons Recital Hall last weekend. The hall brought out the richness of the sounds they make -- Jones was at his blistering best in Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" and Kurt Weill's 'Speak Low." He also penetrated to the bluesy marrow of Monk's "'Round Midnight" and Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." Whatever the tempo, Jones always gave his esteemed bassist, George Mraz, a say. The glittering brushwork of Dennis Mackrel was also generously featured.*

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