Spoleto arts festival draws record crowds

Music: Despite shadows cast by the issue of the Confederate flag, great music made the event worthwhile.

June 07, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Several shadows, not all gloomy, cropped up at the 24th annual Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C.

This popular celebration of the arts, which continues through Sunday, could not escape the shadow cast by the Confederate battle flag flying over the state capitol at least until July 1. The NAACP's call for a state tourism boycott as a result of that offending cloth took its toll on Spoleto, possibly the country's most prominent multi-arts festival. A few artists, notably the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, canceled their appearances, and there was a dip at the box office, especially for group sales.

Then there was the shadow that fell on one of the most in-demand attractions on the festival roster, the French circus troupe Les Colporteurs. When artistic director and tightrope walker Antoine Rigot was seriously injured off the job while swimming, performances had to be scratched and tickets reluctantly refunded.

The opening Memorial Day weekend set a new attendance record, and many performances were still packing them in last weekend. (About 100,000 people attend the 17-day festival annually.) Even if the flag issue drags on into 2001 (the flag's upcoming move to a Confederate memorial on state grounds is not finding favor with the boycotters), Spoleto is likely to mark its silver anniversary in strong shape.

After all, this is the festival that survived a much-publicized battle over artistic values with its founder, composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who departed a few years ago in a huff. . The festival remains what he intended, both a reflection and an enhancement of a specific community, one steeped in history and rich in charm.

That historical side of Charleston is more obvious, perhaps, than ever. On this city's ever-attractive (if, sad to note, increasingly chain-store infected streets, secessionist sentiments once boiled over into the first shots fired in the Civil War.

Today, Charleston is a bastion of anti-flag feeling in the state. The festival invited Southern writers to address the fallout from that symbol of "heritage" or "hate" on Saturday. A free outdoor "concert for the community" was added to the schedule the night before, offering black and white artists and music from black and white cultures. The evening included gospel favorites, given heartfelt life by The Brotherhood, an a cappella group from Mount Pleasant, S.C., and Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," performed by the Spoleto Festival Orchestra and ringingly narrated by state Sen. McKinley Washington.

The ideal of racial harmony carried over into one of the hottest draws of this year's festival, a music/theater piece called "The Silver River" composed by Bright Sheng, with a libretto by playwright David Henry Hwang. Based on an ancient Chinese legend, the brilliantly staged piece relates the mixing of different species, earthly and divine, human and animal, for one moment of harmony "on the seventh day of the seventh month."

In this production, intentionally, a black actress (Karen Kandel) portrays the golden buffalo, a white man her beloved cowherd (baritone Michael Chioldi); add a Chinese actor (Jamie Guan) as the Jade Emperor, Chinese and Western musicians, and you get a larger metaphor about universal brotherhood that seems even more relevant in this place at this time.

If Sheng's score is not entirely persuasive, the cumulative power of the production, with its central waterfall portraying the silver river (what Westerners call the Milky Way), makes a lasting impression.

So do the festival's other major musical events, Verdi's "Luisa Miller" and Gluck's "Iphigenie en Tauride,"two operas that ordinarily have little in common. Here, they were linked by some other shadows in this year's Spoleto, though these were lighting effects. Both Allen Moyer, who designed "Luisa Miller," and Christian Ratz, who designed "Iphigenie," have a thing for stark, flat walls. Characters press against them in times of woe and stand in front of them while spotlights dramatically project their enlarged shadows.

In the case of the Gluck work, the set and lighting propel the concept of directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier to create a bleak atmosphere, matching the tale of Greek antiquity about that supremely dysfunctional family of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. It was possible to appreciate the dramatic beauty of the score despite an uneven cast and ragged orchestra conducted by Steven Sloan. Soprano Andrea Trebnik was not ready technically for the title role, but baritone Andrew Schroeder and tenor Tracey Welborn caught the poignancy of the Oreste-Pylade friendship in singing of considerable sensitivity.

As for "Luisa Miller," just about everything worked. Director Christopher Alden made the most of Moyer's set to create stunning stage pictures, from rows of choristers attired in Quaker-like clothes to rows of lanterns that characters darted through on bare feet. Hanging omnipresently over all was a massive, rectangular painting of the buried Christ.

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