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The grits factor 

Cause and effect at Spoleto USA

Charles Wadsworth has been involved with Spoleto from the moment that the hilltop village in Umbria became associated with the great arts festival back in 1960. He introduced the first noonday chamber music concerts, in a patois of English and Italian, years before the USA version of Spoleto became a gleam in founder Gian Carlo Menotti's eye.

Wadsworth has seen it all, from the first day that Menotti's vision became reality in Charleston at the first Spoleto Festival USA in 1977. So when he faced the one o'clock audience last Thursday at Dock Street Theatre and told us that there had never been balmier, more perfect weather for the first week of Spoleto, he spoke with unimpeachable authority.

As a citizen of the world who wears his eccentricity proudly, Wadsworth offered a theory explaining why Charleston has eluded the ravages of global warming. Grits. Strolling through the unseasonably cool breezes to his customary hosting gig, Wadsworth had recalled the unusually high consumption of grits-per-capita in the South Carolina lowcountry, shrewdly connecting cause and effect.

So before yielding the stage to Handel, Dvorak, Schubert and Alessandro Scarlatti, Wadsworth urged us to increase our intake of grits while at Spoleto. A liberating prescription when you consider all the cholesterol you can heap on grits.

Ah, but sentimentalists might attribute the special weather dispensation to Menotti himself, who died on Feb. 1 at the age of 95. The breach between Menotti and Spoleto Festival USA was never healed after the two parted company in 1993. Rather touching, then, that a free concert honoring the composer was added to the festivities on the same morning that Wadsworth propounded the Grits Effect.

The spirit of Menotti -- expounded upon in eulogies from choral director Joseph Flummerfelt and Mayor Joseph P. Riley -- continues to preside at Spoleto. As always, there's a calculated mix of artistic comfort food mixed with outrageous, outlandish exotica that stretches and tears the envelope.

No matter how far you travel to see Spoleto during its 17 days -- and current artistic director Nigel Redden boasts that 48 of the 50 states are represented by ticketholders at this year's festival -- you can discover an opera, a musical composition, a dance company or a jazz artist that you'll find nowhere else. Adventure, risk and discovery make the experience of Spoleto an addictive brew.

Here are the finds and the flops through the first two weekends of Spoleto 2007, listed within categories in order of preference (shows and events still running are indicated in parentheses):

Opera

With three audacious programming choices, including two American premieres, it's little wonder that this year's opera lineup is causing most of the buzz. As we predicted here, the Gluck rarity delivers the most unalloyed pleasure.

L'ile de Merlin (through June 9) -- Gluck's rare excursion into comedy has lingered in obscurity for 249 years before reaching America, but co-directors Christopher Alden and Roy Rallo refuse to treat this one-act satire like a museum piece. The camaraderie of shipwrecked heroes Scapin and Pierrot, though sung in French, has a contemporary Beavis-and-Butt-head flavor, and the subtitle of the piece -- "The World Turned Upside Down" -- is given far more play than Gluck's original island ambiance.

The reverse of mid-18th Century Paris is a Utopia where fidelity is de rigueur, the rich are required to marry the poor, and physicians pleasure their patients instead of bleeding them. But there is a certain sterility about the Alden-Rallo version of paradise, keeping us indoors with automated carts, flat screen TV and stiff cartoonish characters. Argentine and Diamantine, the women destined for our heroes, are as much matched bookends as they are beauties. So the bliss that comes to Scapin and Pierrot on this enchanted isle should remind you of those infamous Enzyte penis pill ads featuring Smiley Bob and his matching wife.

The music and the singing are superb, and the costumes are a stitch -- especially Le Philosophe encased in a smiley face.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (June 9) -- After the wildly successful American premiere of Die Burgschaft in 1999, it was inevitable that Spoleto would take up Kurt Weill's more familiar fare. Emanuelle Villaume and his Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra dig zestfully into the score, but it's the design team -- set designer Christian Fenouillat and costume designer Agostino Cavalca -- who really dazzle, capturing the seedy spirit of Bertolt Brecht's anti-capitalist barrage.

Richard Brunner, if not brimming with charisma, sings Jimmy Mahoney in a piercingly tragic tenor. Except for the roguish Timothy Nolen as Trinity Moses, the rest of the principals are also hit-and-miss. As Begbick, Karen Huffstodt swaddles every note with a wide, clangorous wobble, but I couldn't keep my eyes off her flamboyant dynamism. Worse were Beauregard Palmer as Fatty and Tammy Hensrud as the harlot Jenny Hill -- both somehow managed to vanish in blandness.

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