Arts » Performing Arts

The Great Escape

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Sick and tired of ear-shattering motorsports and multi-millionaire spoilsports? Head south to the picturesque port city of Charleston and revel in one of the most glorious arts events on the planet, Spoleto Festival USA.

Founded in 1977 by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti as the New World offshoot of his Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds) in Spoleto, Italy, the younger festival heads into its second quarter century with more programming -- and prestige -- than its 45-year-old progenitor. Over the 17 days of Spoleto USA, May 24 through June 9, there are over 125 performing arts tickets up for grabs.

Toss in a couple of dozen lectures and heritage events, sprinkle with a citywide installation of large-scale works by leading international visual artists newly commissioned for 2002, and you still only have the tip of a huge cultural iceberg. At the same time that the big international names and glamour events are shuttling in and out of Big Spoleto's prime venues, Piccolo Spoleto will be staging an astonishing 700 events focusing primarily on artists of the Southeast.

No, you can't see everything. But during the 17 days of Spoleto revels, you can sample a smorgasbord of theater, opera, jazz, choral, and classical music from 10 in the morning till 11 at night. My wife and I would probably do just that if the restaurants, the historical sites, the lush parks, and the shopping weren't all so varied and enticing. While it's impossible to fully experience the magnitude of Spoleto, you can gradually catch up with the wonders of Charleston: its bustle, its sophistication, and its rich heritage.

Here's a rundown of the events I'm most looking forward to at Spoleto Festival USA -- and the ones I most regret missing.

Theatre

I'm much more optimistic about this year's headline theater event, Brian Friel's The Bear/Afterplay doublebill (5/24-6/9), than when it was first announced. The opening half of the program is Friel's new translation of an oft-anthologized one-act farce by Chekhov (sometimes known as The Brute). Then Friel writes his own sequel, using two of Chekhov's characters.

But the reprised characters aren't from the lightweight Bear. They're drawn from more substantial works by the Russian master -- Andrei Prozorov from The Three Sisters and Sonya Serebriakova from Uncle Vanya. Just as significant, we get to see John Hurt onstage at cozy Dock Street Theatre as Andrei. Hurt's fabled TV and screen roles date back to his maniacal Caligula in the I, Claudius miniseries and include signature performances in Alien, Crime and Punishment, 1984, and Oscar-nominated gems in Elephant Man and Midnight Express.

I'd be more excited about seeing Obon: Tales of Rain and Moonlight (5/30-6/9) if we were able to squeeze Ping Chong's latest exploit in puppetry into our tight schedule. In 1998, Chong dazzled us with Kwaidan, based on three of Lafcadio Hearn's transcriptions of Japanese ghost tales. Now we get a second helping derived from Hearn plus fresh ghostly take-outs from the classic Ugetsu Monogatari collection. Exquisitely creepy fun for the whole family.

Opera/Music Theatre

I'm beginning to summon fresh enthusiasm for this year's Spoleto theater lineup, but the opera fare rocks -- with two giants of the genre rarely seen onstage at the festival. They're going to do Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman (5/24, 27, 31, 6/7) at big Gaillard Auditorium, staged by Chen Shi-Zheng, starring Mark Delavan and Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet. It's historic whenever anybody stages Wagner here in the Carolinas, but conductor Emmanuel Villaume believes that this will be the first time Wagner's original 1841 version (rather than the more familiar 1896 Felix Weingarten revision) will be performed anywhere in the United States. Remembering Shi-Zheng's audacious version of Dido and Aeneas at Dock Street last year, I'm not expecting anything about this landmark production to be humdrum.

George Cleve is conducting Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte (5/25-6/8) at intimate Dock Street Theatre, which ought to be a perfect marriage of venue and material for the singers and stage director Pierre Constant. Trusted siblings Fiordiligi and Dorabella will be sung by Angela Fout and Jossie Perez while Jesus Garcia and Chris Schaldenbrand portray their overconfident fiancés.

I'm even more optimistic about the pair of American premieres from Broomhill Opera, Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries and The South African Carmen (5/24-6/2). Fresh from a successful run in London, The Mysteries is a contemporary South African reinterpretation of the medieval Mystery Plays first performed in Chester, England, in the 13th century. Equally acclaimed, Carmen abridges the famed Bizet opera, singing it in English, with minimal dialogue spoken in the singers' native Xhosa or Afrikaans language.

Another tip-off on Broomhill. They're on the bill at the Italian Spoleto later this spring. Since the acrimonious departure of Menotti in the mid '90s, the sibling festivals rarely agree on anything anymore.

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