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Spoleto's Year of the Woman 

Enchantresses invade Charleston

Wherever you turned during the first two weekends of Spoleto Festival USA, women excelled in 2003 as never before. Under the stars at the Cistern, onstage at Dock Street Theatre, in opera or concert at cavernous Gaillard Auditorium, a parade of enchantresses consistently dazzled.Two of Spoleto's very best productions will linger for last hurrahs this weekend as the 17-day arts revels conclude -- good news if you're willing to battle for seats.

TheatreEverything about the Gate Theatre's production of Pride and Prejudice breathes a deep love and understanding of Jane Austen's classic novel. James Maxwell's stage adaptation brilliantly divvies up the juiciest narrative and epigrams. At the climax of Act 1, the drama and emotion are actually heightened when the haughty nobleman, Fitzwilliam Darcy, is shell-shocked by the rejection he receives to his marriage proposal from our brash heroine, Elizabeth Bennett.

Instead of retiring to his room, composing a lengthy letter that defends his actions and refutes her prejudices, Darcy returns moments after he has retreated and, still stunned, delivers a response that is almost as stinging as Elizabeth's rejection. The effect is electric.

A mischievous twinkle settles naturally into Justine Mitchell's eyes as she shoulders the narrating chores and portrays Elizabeth. Just as naturally, a cynical smirk forms on Mark O'Halloran's features as Mr. Darcy. Together, they are perfection. So are Bill Golding and Susan FitzGerald as Elizabeth's comical parents. We can forgive director Alan Stanford if he pushes the imperious Lady Catherine de Burgh (Barbara Brennan) and her obsequious Mr. Collins (Sean Kearns) into more radical caricatures than the Austen originals.

If you don't already hold tickets, you'll need to show up at Dock Street Theatre an hour before each performance to have a shot at a folding chair. The remainder of P&P's run is otherwise sold out. And with good reason.

OperaNo doubt about it, the opening night performance of Lakme was a personal triumph for Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova in the title role. Every woodland call from the Brahmin princess gurgled like a pure stream. Every pianissimo glistened and floated like pure silk. And when she reached the climactic "Bell Song," luring the amorous Gerald into her father's clutches, Gaillard Auditorium erupted into applause and cheers -- halfway through the aria. An exultant maestro Emmanuel Villaume joined the applause from the orchestra pit (after the aria), later hoisting his star in the air upon joining her onstage for curtain calls.

After a quavery start, baritone Alain Fondary made a powerful impression as Lakme's papa. Manly tenor Fernando de la Mora delivered solid vocals and adequate acting as the enthralled Gerald, upstaged by Franco Pomponi as his British army cohort. Bernard Arnould's set design -- particularly his bamboo forest -- sets a new standard for homegrown Spoleto productions, and Villaume has a perfect feel for Leo Delibes' colorful score.

With a countertenor leading man who's more barbaric than heroic, and a series of arias that tend to evolve into repetitive declamations, Tamerlano is more difficult to love. But stage director Chas Rader-Shieber and designer David Zinn inject new relevance into Handel's 1724 potboiler. In this production, the conqueror wears modern-day Western suits and is served by soldiers whose berets remind us of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. The captive Turkish sultan, Bajazet, wears the more traditional garments we associate with Saudi and Kuwaiti royalty. Western barbarity and materialism in the Middle East -- how can that be?!

Everybody in the talented cast negotiates Handel's tricky vocal lines with aplomb. But it's tenor John Garrison who turns on the most power as Bajuzet, the protective captive string to keep his daughter Asteria from the clutches of Tamerlane. Trouble is, mezzo Jennifer Dudley demolishes the plot as Tamerlane's discarded fiancee, markedly more charming than the bland Asteria of Robin Blitch Wiper. If the Tartar emperor prince could see the obvious, we could end happily in less than one hour instead of wrangling through three.

JazzAbbey Lincoln did it her way at Gaillard, browbeating her young trio with capricious demands and holding nothing back in her angry, bluesy, exuberant vocals. The spontaneity and daring of her performance even surpassed what you'd expect from a 72-year-old jazz diva who was a dazzling beauty in her youth. More amazing was the power and purity of her voice, scarcely less than it was when she cut her first albums in the 50s -- ripened by a colorful life and ignited by a spiritual flame. The most moving of her original songs were "Down Here Below" and "Throw It All Away." "I Should Care" and "The Nearness of You," her encore, were the most most heartfelt of the standards.

Two more women impressed under the moonlit magnolias at the Cistern. Lynn Arriale displayed prodigious chops, opening with "Beautiful Love" in a surprisingly frisky Bill Evans groove. Egged on by her flaky drummer, Steve Davis, the pianist reconstructed "It Don't Mean a Thing" and "Bemsha Swing" in ways that would have brought Ellington and Monk to keen attention. Brazilian favorite Monica Salmaso wove a demure yet sensuous spell with her set of bossa novas and sambas, backed by a folkish quintet that included alto sax and accordion. A self-accompanied rendition of a Portuguese "Ave Maria" was Salmaso's most distinctive treat.

Chamber MusicModernity made new inroads in the noontime Dock Street chamber concerts. The St. Lawrence String Quartet, in effect Spoleto's house combo, brought a gorgeous rendition of a sunny Haydn quartet and anchored a stirring performance of Mozart's Viola Quintet with Daniel Phillips. But they also plumbed the subtleties of Ravel's seminal quartet and the emotional depths of Shostakovich's Quartet #8.

Anne Marie McDermott set the pace at the keyboard in a scintillating all-woman performance of Beethoven's "Ghost" Piano Trio, with lovely Finnish violinist Elina Vahala on violin and newcomer Alisa Wallerstein on cello. Mostly, McDermott delved into Prokofiev, teaming with Wallerstein in a rapturous reading of the Cello Sonata, pounding behind Vahala's fierce gallop through the Violin Sonata #1, and filling the hall with the thunder of battle soloing on Sergei's wartime Piano Sonata #7.

There's plenty more fine chamber music to come as Wendy Chen takes over for McDermott, Chee-Yun spells Vahala, and Andres Diaz pinch-hits for Wallerstein. Hedwig Roars Louder Than the LionI can only guess at the radical measures Disney's roadies took when the scourge of Speedweek infested Tryon Street. Surely they turned up the decibels to combat the outside blare shaking the buildings. But last week, sound pressure levels were higher in the third row at Duke Performance Theatre during Hedwig and the Angry Inch than they were at Belk Theater in Row D when The Lion roared.

Actor's Theatre of Charlotte is known for their meaty dramas and edgy comedies, although they've made a couple of notable excursions into countrified musicals in the past and another into French cabaret. Now they're rockin' -- with Billy Ensley, of all people, directing himself as the malformed transsexual.

While many devout "Hed heads" might declare that Ensley's a decade or more older than the ideal German punk, Charlotte's preeminent triple threat delivers a remarkably raw Hedwig. No less surprising, coming on the heels of a lead role in Theatre Charlotte's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is bearded B. Pierce's turn as Hedwig's tortured backup singer/husband, Yitzak.

In fact, Ensley could occasionally take his cue from Pierce's moody, intense energy. On the other hand, Pierce is the only member of the Angry Inch who makes me want to use the earplugs they're handing out at the door. More of Pierce's youthful angst needs to couple with Ensley's narrative clarity throughout the evening -- at Ensley's sound level.

Everything else is dialed in nicely. The Angry Inch band, led by Craig Spradley, features a hot theatre debut from lead guitarist Ben Jackson. True believers will not be disappointed.

Carp all you like about the borrowings of Disney's The Lion King, the hit Broadway score is suffused with a percussive African flavor that wondrously complements Julie Taymor's celebrated staging and design. In Simba's tale of exile and exaltation, I'm taken back to the tales of Joseph and Moses that I learned in childhood. And Simba's nutsy pals, Timon and Pumbaa, carry me back to the cartoon comedy cut-ups that have been Disney staples since Donald Duck sprang from his egg.

The whole touring cast is topnotch, particularly Patrick Page as Simba's usurping Uncle Scar. I thought he was the scariest cat I'd ever seen at Belk Theater. But the famed jungle parade up the aisles -- magical to most mortals -- was what terrified the anklebiter sitting behind me. Parents beware!

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