As usual, the new season at Spoleto Festival USA brings a dizzying array of opera, theatre, dance, chamber music, and jazz — with occasional sprinklings of puppetry, circus, and Americana — to historic Charleston. Keeping up with everything is an exhausting and rewarding marathon. Arriving last Friday, I was ticketed for 10 events and two conversational interviews through the holiday. Here's my scorecard on the opening weekend:
A Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Ballet (**** out of 4) — We barely remember seeing the Scottish Ballet performing an all-Balanchine program at the Edinburgh International Festival nearly ten years ago. But this adaptation of the Tennessee Williams classic, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and starring Eva Mutso as Blanche DuBois, will linger long in my memory among the very best theatrical ballets I've ever seen.
A large portion of the credit goes to the magnificently expressive and graceful Mutso, because Blanche is more at the center of Ochoa's concept than even Williams'. We begin with Blanche's misfortunes at Belle Reve, including the disastrous love triangle with her homosexual husband, that are only spoken about in the drama. This string of episodes culminates in one of the most gripping moments I've ever seen staged by a ballet company — the literal crumbling of the stately DuBois mansion.
So director Nancy Meckler and designer Niki Turner make sizable contributions to the impact of this piece, and Peter Salem's original score is impeccable, never diverting us from the core drama and its pathos. Erik Cavallari and Sophie Martin as Stanley and Stella Kowalski keenly understand the family chemistry as we transition from the DuBois plantation to the sensuality and vulgarity of New Orleans — and a wholly different kind of triangle.
What Stanley does to Blanche in Act 2 certainly remains damaging. Yet when I saw the contrast between Victor Zarillo as Blanche's dead husband and Lewis Landini as Mitch, her best marital prospect in Nawlins, I realized that there were other things driving her mad.
Mônica Salmaso (***3/4) — It has been 12 years since the Brazilian singer made her Spoleto debut; yet despite numerous CDs, DVDs, and awards since then; Salmaso is still nothing like a diva when she takes the stage. She brought just two backup musicians with her, Nelson Ayres on piano and Teco Cardoso on soprano sax and flutes. Disdaining glitz and aloofness, Salmaso stood amid a toyshop of percussion, including a thumb piano, a wee tambourine, a metronome, a mini bongo, and a floor-mounted instrument that could have been ripped off the neck of the Little Drummer Boy. Two wind instruments also emerged from the clutter, a cutesy bellows and a kazoo.
As this catalogue suggests, Salmaso isn't all about ballads, sinuous sambas, and bossa novas anymore. There was room for uptempo and whimsical songs in the 2015 playlist, an enhanced readiness to interact with the audience, and a refreshing inclination to have some fun with her talents and her tasty band.
Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Globe (***3/4) — One of our most memorable days in London was the afternoon — and evening — we spent at Shakespeare's Globe in 2001, watching King Lear by day and Cymbeline at night. A pinch of that wondrous Elizabethan ambiance survives the crossing into the New World in the US premiere of this touring production. Houselights are only moderately dimmed, hinting at the au naturel lighting of the outdoor stadium theater on the bank of the Thames, as the tragedy raucously begins with all eight of the players picking up an instrument and launching into music and song.
Andrew D. Edwards' production design is a weathered, skeletal, two-storey affair that also conjures up the earthiness of London's Globe — while chiming well with the rugged old character of the Dock Street Theatre. But the most extraordinary thing about the concept directors Dominic Dromgoole and Tim Hoare pursue is their insistence that Romeo and Juliet are young, immature, bursting with energy, driven by impulse, and magical. They are children diving into adulthood, riding their perilous love together, violently jostled by their journey and somehow thrilled by it all.
Samuel Valentine and Cassie Layton not only shine in contrast with the strife between the Montagues and the Capulets, they're also radiant and genuine in contrast with the artifice surrounding them as we watch the other six actors shape-shifting into two, three, or even four roles. Layton especially makes the old familiar lines of the star-crossed lovers blushingly new, combining with Valentine in the most affecting Romeo and Juliet I've ever seen. Through June 7.
Musica Nuda (***1/2) — Audacious, perverse, and punkish, Petra Magoni vies with the strangest and most eclectic vocalists ever to appear at Spoleto. Ostensibly a part of the Wells Fargo Jazz series, Magoni ranged convincingly from a Handel operatic aria to the mainstream pop "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" to the reggae "Don't Worry" to the spiritual "I Want to Be Ready" to the disco "I Will Survive" to the torchy "La Vie en Rose" — with courtesy visits to the great American songbook via "Nature Boy" and "Over the Rainbow."
Magoni's only accompanist under the live oaks of Cistern Yard was Ferruccio Spinetti on upright bass, about as barebones and naked as a combo can be. Dressed all in gothic black for her second show, Magoni occasionally chipped in some percussion by sternly stamping her heel with S&M vigor. Or she was down on all fours, strumming on the double bass's nether regions around the bridge.
Tuck and Patti this was not. Consistently, Magoni's interpretations were as outré as her antics — and thanks to her surpassing confidence and vocal bravura, they were just as consistently successful.
Chamber Music (***1/2) — Succeeding the lovable, venerated Charles Wadsworth as director of chamber music, Geoff Nuttall seems to push the envelope a little further every year. He's pushing against the stuffiness of audience decorum this year, and pushing for more contemporary music. Ten of the 11 programs this season include works by living composers.
Straddling the first weekend with works on the first three programs, resident composer Mark Applebaum stretched the definition of chamber music performed at the daily lunchtime Dock Street Theatre concerts — beyond the breaking point for some. Two of Applebaum's pieces used prerecorded tape, another contained elements of randomness and improvisation, and only one required live instrumentalists.
The expansion of repertoire doesn't veer exclusively toward contemporary composers, for Nuttall brought in baritone Tyler Duncan to sing complete song cycles in Program 2 and Program 4, Schumann's Dichterliebe and Beethoven's An Die Ferne Geliebte. Opening the door wider to instrumental transcriptions, arias from Eugene Onegin and La Forza del Destino were in the mix.
Reductions of Bach concerti have been done in the past, but Nuttall has expanded the practice to Haydn symphonies, programming #104, the "London," this year. And he's allowing the Brandenburg Concerto to be defaced, replacing the piccolo trumpet with an E-flat clarinet. Plenty more discoveries remain through June 7.
Veremonda, l'amazzone di Aragona (***1/4) — With a corrupted manuscript, a skimpy performance history, and a mix of comedy and drama that operatic audiences don't usually tolerate outside Mozart, Francesco Cavalli's 1652 opera isn't the most obvious candidate for an ambitious exhumation project. Yet this American premiere of a work that was forgotten for over 350 years brims with promise and vitality in a colorfully brash production, featuring a cast headed by Vivica Genaux.
Because King Alfonso is an effete stargazer, it is the Spanish queen Veremonda who wages war against the heathen Moors and lays siege to Gibraltar. Raising an army of women is one way she earns her Amazonian nickname, for she also dons soldier attire to spy on the enemy. Thwarting the overall campaign is the laxity of her handsome general, Delio, who is wooing Queen Zelemina on the sly, invading the fort of Calpe in solo forays for their clandestine spooning.
Romance is fairly rampant in Aragon, so there is plenty of comedy infused into the opera when the servants get involved, acting on their desires and speaking in lewd double entendres. Delio's duplicity also extends to efforts at cuckolding King Alfonso, despite his ardent overtures to Zelemina. Veremonda's receptivity is no ambiguous than her wardrobe.
Set design by Ugo Nespolo is as colorful as a Matisse book of cutouts, with a cartoonish bent that often underscores the comedy. Detours into dances by the Amazon warriors and a herd of bulls go by more blissfully, thanks to Nespolo's striking costume designs. All of this theatrical flowering would have been overwhelming before the Dock Street Theatre's wondrous renovation, and the quiet, efficient air conditioning makes the occasional doldrums easier to sail through. With Genaux in fine voice on opening night after her first moments, backed by a strong cast, the voyage was mostly a delight. Through June 5.
The Lost Garden (**3/4) — Featuring a nest of vertical clarinets called a sheng, Huang Ruo's "Wind Blows" launched this year's series of Music in Time concerts, hosted by John Kennedy. This and Ruo's Chamber Concerto No. 2, The Lost Garden, allowed us to explore Ruo's work more fully as the composer's new opera, Paradise Interrupted, premieres at Meminger Auditorium.
Kennedy's manner as host is less genial and comical than Nuttall's, and his program selections diverge in a similar fashion. Zach Sheets, principal flutist in the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, played his own composition, "That Colors the Stone," and Gleb Kanasevich, playing both clarinet and piano, introduced us to Valentin Silvestrov's aptly titled "Misterioso." Go to the chamber music concerts to relax, laugh, and enjoy works that invoke, reinvent, and expand the traditions. Try Music in Time if you wish to be more challenged by the utterly new and different.
Sleeping Beauty, Carlo Colla & Sons Marionettes (**1/2) — Resolutely old-fashioned and low-tech, the Colla Marionettes troupe have been reliably bringing huge casts of wooden characters to Spoleto since 1987. Parading across a quaint little stage, expertly guided from above by the hidden puppeteers, the resplendently dressed marionettes have enacted such treasurable narratives as Aïda, Sheherazade, and Cinderella in past visits. If you presume that the music of Verdi, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky figured into the soundtracks of these productions, mated to prerecorded dialogue, you have plumbed the depths of the Colla formula.
It's a family outing, as far as I'm concerned, dedicated to the enchantment of the small fry you might bring along. For me, the romance and melodrama of the Colla narratives vanish as soon as I see the first telltale hop of a heroic marionette making his or her way across the stage. With its Tchaikovsky score, this year's Sleeping Beauty was no less punishing than previous Colla efforts.
Lighting and costuming actually brought some electricity to the arrival of the uninvited fairy, Misery, to Princess Aurora's nativity celebration. I desperately awaited her return visits to the action. Ah, but the prophecy that Aurora would be awakened from her slumber by the handsomest prince on earth did not pan out. The mop-haired Prince Desire, after 100 long years, was not worth the wait.
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell (**1/4) — I'd like to say that I couldn't see what all the shouting was about at this TD Arena concert. Sad to say, the crowd was not at all youthful and disappointingly docile, way less enthusiastic than the Roseanne Cash audience in 2013. Not only weren't there any shouts, there weren't even whoops of delight or outbreaks of applause to mark the beginning of a beloved Harris or Crowell composition.
By default, the most enjoyable tunes were Crowell's rockers. The sound was too loud and distorted for me to find beauty in Harris' melodies or grasp the poetry that might have lurked in her lyrics. Words were mostly indecipherable. Nor was I charmed when Harris expressed surprise at the existence of music festivals that are staged indoors. Maybe she should have hired a sound engineer who could adapt to the difference. All in all, I was nearly as disoriented as Harris was.