Spoleto festival falls short artistically

June 08, 1994|By W. Andrew Powell | W. Andrew Powell,Special to The Sun

Charleston, S.C. -- Menotti is gone.

Long live Spoleto!

So went the unspoken theme of this year's arts festival in Charleston, which closed Sunday after a reduced 12-day run.

The Menotti cited is Gian Carlo Menotti, librettist, opera composer, stage director, festival founder and chief, a man whose creative gifts are at least equaled by his flair for making money.

And, depending on who you ask, Spoleto is the name of America's premier fine arts festival, or a hilly town in Italy with its own related festival, or a legal property, or a musical mecca, or a boon to tourism, or just a headache.

Mr. Menotti, 82, screamed addio to Charleston last October after years of arguments over power, money and sometimes art. The last straw, it seems, was the town's reluctance to embrace the visions of Francis "Chip" Menotti, his adopted son and chosen successor.

This departure raised the question: Was Spoleto dead in America?

Not in the eyes of Mr. Menotti, who suggested he would move Spoleto Festival USA to another city.

Not in the view of South Carolina bigwigs, either. They were not about to let Spoleto die, not when it brought an estimated $73 million into the state each year. As for it moving, well, they owned the name.

The festival's survival into its 18th year has been exciting financially and artistically. Mostly financially.

Mr. Menotti weakened the Charleston operation by insisting that board members and artists choose between America and the Italian Spoleto, over which he retained control. For fund-raising, this meant it wasn't possible to raise money for both festivals.

To make matters worse, a $1 million accumulated deficit on a budget of just $4.3 million loomed in Charleston as Mr. Menotti departed. Creditors were calling, most of them local businesses. Through the spring, Spoleto's board of directors was spending as much time calming nerves and requesting debt forgiveness as raising money.

A "fix-it" team was hired to cut costs for 1994 and get the books in order, with Milton Rhodes as general manager. A $600,000 loan from the state was approved, and the festival's length was cut -- from 17 days last year to 12.

But if Spoleto succeeded in funding its 1994 operations -- even realizing a $100,000 surplus, according to board chairman Homer Burrous on Monday -- it fell short artistically.

The loss of talented conductor Steven Mercurio, a Menotti casualty, didn't help. On the other hand, the re-appointment of conductor Spiros Argiris might have been expected to help more.

With the lofty title "Artistic Director for Symphonic and Operatic Activities and Principal Conductor," Mr. Argiris carried the load for Spoleto's big-ticket endeavors this year, including three showcase musical-dramatic works and the "Festival Concert."

It was alarming, then, to find him missing in action. Apparently, a scheduling conflict with the Opera Bastille in Paris (a "Tosca" starring Placido Domingo) prevented him from attending to Spoleto.

Still, Mr. Rhodes was at pains to point out that Mr. Argiris had earned his undisclosed salary by planning and casting.

What Mr. Rhodes could not do was explain the wayward decisions that resulted in an adulterated Beethoven's "Fidelio," a miscast Handel's "Acis and Galatea," and the waste that was Mauricio Kagel's "La trahison orale."

The Beethoven, a Nikolaus Lehnhoff production new to this country, suffered cuts and the substitution of silly poetry for the German dialogue. The changes were supposed to make the action clearer but succeeded only in emphasizing the opera's static nature. Its cast sang powerfully, with Ulla Gustafsson an intense but slightly unsteady Leonore and Johan Botha an aggrieved Florestan who made a good case for prison food. Both singers could have used more imaginative guidance from Alicja Mounk's vigorous podium.

Handel's English masque was oddly served by the mature Greek soprano of Alexandra Papadjiakou as the love-object Galatea. But her singing was not without refinement.

Maria Fortuna was a dramatically engaging though shrill Acis, Joel Sorensen a tonally impure Damon, and Aurio Tomicich a Polyphemus with poor diction.

Director Ulderico Manani's fondness for plastic wrap and aluminum foil dotted his garish sets.

Kagel's music-theater piece emerged as more of an endurance test than a tax on the imagination. This puerile study of "the image of devils," staged in reds and blacks with endlessly moving flies and crude lighting, offered a sequence of cheap stunts accompanied by simple, vaguely engaging percussive music. Its capable performers never came close to winning over their audience.

Spoleto's "Festival Concert" needs a strong conductor, one who can give the festival's orchestra of young musicians a riveting experience.

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