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Life is good at Spoleto USA

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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.

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