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Pureum Jo as Matsukaze at the Spoleto Festival USA. (Photo by Julia Lynn)

Pureum Jo as Matsukaze at Spoleto Festival USA. (Photos by Julia Lynn)

Charleston, S.C. — Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA has always had a “Babette’s Feast” quality. From its inception, it has consistently brought the wildest, most cutting-edge stuff from the smarter performing arts to a gorgeous but unlikely and rather insular small city that is usually focused on the past.

As the festival has grown and, amazingly, prospered, it has attracted a diverse audience, including a sizeable number of the big-city patrons of the talent on display here. Some stayed on and others became regular visitors, transforming Charleston. For example, the festival has been a huge factor in the development of the city’s large upscale culinary scene. During the festival, the better restaurants extend their closing times to cater to the long nights of the glitterati in attendance. And a breakfast argument about obscure Strauss might draw simultaneous contributors from several adjacent tables, one of whom will invariably turn out to be an internationally known expert on the subject.

Another group of regulars consists of sophisticates within driving distance, who’ve discovered in Spoleto a sort of oasis that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the region. Or, to be honest, anywhere else on earth. So, for 18 days starting Memorial Day weekend, Charleston is the place to be for serious arts junkies.

Opera has always had pride of place at Spoleto, perhaps owing to the fact that the festival was founded pretty much single-handedly by operatic composer Gian Carlo Menotti. This season features two opera programs rather than the usual three, but a spokesman assured me that this is not a permanent change.

“Matsukaze,” which had its American premiere here, is an 80-minute, one-act opera based on a Japanese Noh play. It was composed by Toshio Hosokawa, who is Japanese, has a German libretto by Hannah Dügben, and was directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, who is Chinese-American. Two “salt women” loved a poet; now all are dead, but the spirits of the women haunt the isolated coastal spot where they lived next to a tree. They are visited by a monk, who ultimately helps them find release.

The surreal tree in “Matsukase.”

The surreal tree in “Matsukaze.”

The atmospheric score uses Western instruments to achieve an Eastern sound that seems uniquely in sync with the slow but riveting drama onstage. Nature is constantly invoked, both in the text and score. The women, soprano Pureum Jo in the title role and mezzo-soprano Jihee Kim as Murasame, brought passion and power to their roles. Gary Simpson portrayed the monk with great dignity and compassion. John Kennedy, a young genius who tends to conduct the most interesting things at the festival, brought the score to life with understatement and elegance. One of the great luxuries of Spoleto is the Westminster Choir, one of America’s great choruses (it appears regularly with the New York Philharmonic), which moves from Princeton to Charleston for the festival and, in addition to its own concerts, becomes the source for opera choruses, supernumeraries and many of the smaller roles. “Matsukaze” called for a very high caliber of singing in these parts, and Westminster delivered.

Shi-Zheng staged the opera using simple props and a giant surreal tree, moving his singers naturally rather than in stylized Eastern fashion. Prior productions in Europe apparently had an elaborate dance component (the work was even referred to as a “choreographic opera” at its Brussels premiere), which detracted from the delicate balance and was poorly received. Here the fancy dancing was gone, and the chorus of fishermen moved gracefully but without drawing undue attention. There was not even a credit for a choreographer in the program. The costumes, by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, had a surreal edge, enhancing the mood onstage.

Audience reaction was quite mixed. Ovation inflation has definitely arrived here, but it’s still possible for something not to get a standing ovation, and this was one of those nights. Yet there was a minority of the audience that could be heard passionately defending the work as one of the strongest of the past few years. Some of this is timing. The Dock Street Theatre, where “Matsukaze” is being performed, is rather small, and this was opening night (May 24), so most of the people able to get tickets were high rollers, who tend to be more conservative. A younger, hipper audience would arrive for later performances.

The other opera evening is a double bill, featuring two utterly obscure works. In Umberto Giordani’s “Mese Mariano,” a woman who earlier, under duress, gave her illegitimate son to an orphanage travels some distance to visit him. As they wait for him to be brought out, the mother superior learns that he has just died that day. Unable to bring herself to tell the woman the truth, she makes up a story and the woman leaves in tears. For those of us who cherish verismo works with all their earthy passion and despair, this was a worthwhile discovery, and the work has never before been staged in North America, according to a Spoleto spokesman.

Jennifer Rowley

Jennifer Rowley

The staging, by Stefano Vizioli, was utterly simple, with a large mural of a child’s drawing as a backdrop, a few props and the obvious costumes. Charleston audiences are never happier than when the stage is filled with children, so “Mese Mariano” went over well.

Less successful was Puccini’s first opera, “Le Villi,” a ghost story like “Matsukaze.” After the village celebrates their betrothal, a young man leaves his fiancée to collect an inheritance, pledging eternal loyalty. Along the route, however, he is seduced by a siren, and the fiancée waits in vain for his return. She goes mad, dies and becomes a “Willis,” ghosts of abandoned girls who, for revenge, kill men guilty of abandonment. And along comes her betrothed, who gets his due.

One of the problems of “Le Villi” is that, even by operatic standards, the story is a bit much for modern audiences. The most ridiculous elements of the story are explained by an offstage voice, and Vizioli handled this by having a narrator deliver the lines in exaggerated, somber Italian (with English titles, of course), rather like a newscaster. This brought chuckles from almost everyone, and probably made more sense than to present the work as a straight melodrama. Vizioli set the Willis scene in an insane asylum, which was probably as good an idea as any.

What really made these operas worth attending was the tour de force performance by Jennifer Rowley, a young dramatic soprano with a large, focused sound. She played the central character in both of the operas, showing a nice range and bringing both to life. The rest of the casts were fine, and the Spoleto Orchestra (mostly young professionals from all over) performed brilliantly under Maurizio Barbacini.

Chamber music has been part of Spoleto from the inception and for decades was the domain of Charles Wadsworth, a formidable pianist whose network of friends (including many from his days as head of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center) included a “who’s who” of the classical world. He was nevertheless a controversial figure, because he insisted on “narrating” all the concerts, sprinkling his dialogue with jokes that were embarrassingly corny. Perhaps this was a reaction to what he felt was the stuffiness of traditional programming, where audiences are trusted to read program notes and vocal intrusions are rare. In Wadsworth’s concerts, program contents were kept secret, apparently under the patronizing notion that Spoleto audiences might choose poorly and should enjoy whatever arrived onstage. Still, Wadsworth established a nice tradition of mixing chamber warhorses with modern works and Baroque rarities.

Alisa Weilerstein

Alisa Weilerstein

Wadsworth has retired, and the Spoleto chamber series is now headed by Jeff Nuttall, co-founder and first violin of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, one of the world’s great chamber groups. The programming concept doesn’t seem to have changed, and the quality is as fine as ever. Nuttall has continued the tradition of talking, though not nearly as much. But his chats are more cerebral and the jokes are drier. Instead of forcing the audience to join in a chant of “rain, rain, go away” (yes, that actually happened at a Wadsworth concert), Nuttall entertains with quirky, constantly changing hairstyles, bizarre wardrobe choices and madcap antics, such as dressing the players in bad drag for John Deak’s “Lucy and the Count,” a vampire parody performed last year.

I managed to attend two of the chamber concerts, held in the jewel-like Dock Street Theatre with its fine acoustics. One featured the St. Lawrence String Quartet, joined by the phenomenal cellist Alisa Weilerstein, performing Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. It was paired with a solo percussion knockout written by Inanis Xinakis and performed by Steven Schick. This was chamber music at a very high level indeed.

The next concert paired Weilerstein with Schick, an unlikely duo, for Osvaldo Golijov’s “Mariel,” for cello and marimba. This was preceded by a waltz written by Joseph Lanner for string quartet, and followed by Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A major, played by the Brentano String Quartet and pianist Pedja Muzijevic. All in all, a very satisfying program, beautifully performed.

The Gaillard Auditorium. Spoleto’s large venue for concerts and operas, is undergoing a massive two-year renovation. So the festival has turned to a new venue, the TD Arena. I checked out a performance there by Compagnie Kafig, a Brazilian male dance company whose work combines samba, hip-hop and capoeria dance styles. While the music wasn’t for me, I was astonished at the athleticism of these guys, whose feats seemed to defy gravity. It’s not a venue for acoustic concerts, but it is to be used by such artists as Roseanne Cash, whose visit probably indicates an attempt to reach a broader audience.

Spoleto is also a place for theater, and there are visual arts as well. And there’s the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, a huge catalog of smaller events all over town in all sorts of spaces. Some of the most fun at the festival comes from the Piccolo events, and most of them are free.

Spoleto is easy to do. You can plan in advance or you can just show up and try your luck. It’s hard to go badly wrong here. Some people try to take in five things a day; others pace themselves. Whichever you prefer, this is the only place like it.

View more photos from the festival here

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