There is a special feel when you take in performances at a festival. You get the excitement of discovery, a pilgrimage, and celebration all at once. It has as much to do with the juxtaposition of offerings as the offerings themselves.
The Spoleto Festival in Charleston has become arguably the best-loved and most exciting festival featuring theatre, dance and music in this country. With its world-class offerings, this town in South Carolina has, for decades, been a destination and artistic mecca. For almost three weeks starting at the end of May, the town is turned on and lit up.
Spoleto was started back in 1977 by composer Carlo Menotti who had a dream of presenting a wide variety of performing arts in one of America’s most beautiful cities. Menotti had created a similar festival in his hometown in Italy and knew how to handpick great performances, many of them his own. He did just that for Charleston, creating programs for people who wanted to hear topnotch music and see world-class performances in a charming setting.
In the Festival’s evolution, the city experienced a kind of parallel rebirth prompted by Hurricane Hugo. After this catastrophe in 1989, the city received government funds and put in a code of restoration to prevent the old buildings from being gutted. The restored charm put Charleston on the map and provided an opportunity to design a city where the arts could truly flourish.
General Director Nigel Redden was originally brought in by Menotti to help build this as a sister festival to the Italian Spoleto. In recent years, new structuring, a new board, a new foundation, and a new focus have helped reinforce the mission while the leadership team has worked to bring about better conditions for the performances. Spoleto Festival has come out better than ever.
Key to the transformation of Spoleto has been the acquisition and renovation of three major buildings. What energetic fury it must have taken for Redden to pull off the triple play of Memminger Auditorium, the Dock Street Theatre, and the “office” on George Street. (The administrative offices of Spoleto Festival are actually housed in a renovated 1797 mansion that once belonged to the illustrious politician Thomas Pinkney. It was one of the most beautiful and largest of old homes in Charleston and has been lovingly restored.)
My favorite space is Memminger Auditorium. With comfortable raised seats and a wall-to-wall stage on floor level, the hall’s clean lines and stylistic neutrality make it the perfect showcase for dance and new multi-media works. That’s where we found ourselves on a Friday night in early June after driving into town and joining the crocodile lines of people strolling the sidewalks between venues.
And now for the performances I saw from this year’s festival:
Émilie by Kaija Saariaho
Memminger was the perfect venue for the new opera Émilie, the American premiere by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho with the exquisite Elizabeth Futral in the title role. From the moment the house lights went down and the orchestra played its first notes, I was carried away by the extraordinary mesh of music and theatrical visuals with a single great artist of powerful dramatic abilities at its center.
The opera is based on the life of Émilie du Châtelet, a physicist, mathematician, philosopher, and also the mistress of Voltaire. The romance took the couple from Paris to the country to live out their dream of an intellectual as well as romantic partnership of equals. The dream became more complicated with other lovers on both sides, and Émilie’s life was tragically cut short when she died in childbirth.
Rather than build a traditionally-scaled grand opera with the extraordinary cast of characters the story presented, Saariaho chose to write for one performer and focus on the inner workings of Émilie’s mind. Specifically, the composer juxtaposed the ferocious ambition this woman had to mine the secrets of the universe with her desire to live and love fully and freely.
The opera takes place on one night as Émilie desperately tries to finish her translation of Newton’s “Principia Mathematica“. She mentally traverses a landscape of memories and fears, especially of her own mortality, including the natural fears of a woman in that period facing the dangers of childbirth, and a premonition of her death.
Dressed in a blood red peignoir, Futral musically channeled the moods of this eighteenth century woman, sharing the inner turmoil of a woman split between the life of the mind and of the body. Dramatically, Futral was most powerful while expressing her body’s need for intimacy and at the same time its seeming determination to fail her. As Émilie, she revisits not only the depths of feeling the woman had for Voltaire and their partnership, but also her passion for her most recent lover.
The text is by Amin Maalouf, and despite its occasional awkwardness, he has created a vivid emotional tapestry. Futral plumbs this libretto with ardor and emotional specificity to express the writer’s vision of Émilie’s competing passions. Maalouf organized the work into something that, in lesser hands, might feel more like a song cycle than a true opera. But Futral never lets the audience forget that she is first and foremost charting a dramatic journey.
Under the expert direction of Marianne Weems, the work brings Émilie to life. Weems has divided the stage into symbolic chambers. Stage right sits the desk where Émilie works through the night scratching out mathematical formulas; stage left features a chaise with its voluptuous curves where singer Futral relives the romantic desires of this woman, tracing the air above the chair as if caressing a lover’s body. A third area, marked by an ornate grand mirror seen in profile, is where Futral stands and contemplates her character’s body, the growing telltale signs of age and her pregnancy.
Set designer Neal Wilkinson has created a series of ten scrims cut in geometric shapes like shards floating in space. Seen on these during the performance were a fantastic series of projections by Austin Switzer, including mathematic equations, video clips of Futral’s face, and great balls of fire (possibly signifying the creation of our universe itself.) Most beautiful of all were the candles, where in one scene they multiplied, until they filled the canvases with mirrored projections. They seemed, at first, to symbolize Madame du Châtelet’s nightly vigils, then the life of the mind itself. Might they also have suggested a tribute to the life of the writer that shone beyond her life’s little candle?
Saariaho has created orchestrations that used twenty-seven instruments of the Festival’s Orchestra plus harpsichord soloist Lydia Brown. Deftly conducted by John Kennedy, the score richly conveyed the complexity of moods of the central character. While the addition of the harpsichord anchored the work historically, the musical palette stretched far beyond the period’s trademark sound. Saariaho included eerie calls of the muted horns, the shimmering play and sometimes dying fall of strings, and much percussion, sounding at times like a Balinese gamelan orchestra at others like a glass harmonium.
Futral was also stretched as an instrument, sliding consistently from speaking, to recitative style, and then to full singing. The gymnastic shaping of musical lines had her at times pop into the stratosphere then drop into an earthy richness. I liked especially how the scratchings of the quill pen were amplified and became a musical motif that at times seemed to drive the instrumental music’s urgency and certainly Futral’s vocal choices.
A very interesting aspect of this opera was its seamless transitions between several of the languages that Émilie excelled at – notably French, English and Latin. This multi-lingualism made the work even more appropriate for the sophisticated and worldly audience that attended.
At the end of the opera, projected vectors of mathematical equations begin to multiply on the scrims as Futral sang, losing herself in Émilie’s “kingdom of knowledge.” It was as if the character were trying desperately to complete her life’s work for posterity, knowing there little time was left her. Émilie du Châtelet need not have worried. The extraordinary woman’s immortality is further insured by this wonderful opera.
The Magic Flute by Wolfang Amadeus Mozart
On Saturday night we were at the Sottile Theater, a grand old vaudeville house with orchestra pit and proscenium, for The Magic Flute, a production mounted by the Angers-Nantes Opéra. If the building was a trifle old fashioned and lumbering, the production featured a most inventive update.
The collaborating duo, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Couriers, staged the work with an exuberance and fun take on this classic. Right at the start, the three ladies-in-waiting to the Queen of the Night entered dressed in outlandish getups, a cross between Bavarian confections and cabaret castoffs. They juggled and fumbled something that looked like a cannonball explosive trying to light it while Tamino, looking more like an early Harry Potter than a Teutonic prince, fought a dragon in a shadow play. Things didn’t look well for him until the ladies finally pulled it together and tossed the lit weapon at the beast. A big explosion and then the great snake-head thumped to the ground with a paper maché thud. The production had announced itself.
We’re in for a romp and some pyrotechnics, I thought, which is just what the opera proceeded to give us. The Queen of the Night ascended out of the ground standing inside a silver crescent moon and later had her own fireworks display. Audrey Luna, possessing a name perfect for her role, moved into the silvery notes of the most famous of all arias from this opera with agility and pushed it into delightful absurdity by coming on to Tamino more like a Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate than cool Queen.
Swedish soprano Marie Arnet sang the role of Pamina with clarity and a sweet lyricism, and her acting gave the opera its center. From her fear and anguish in front of Sarastro to her open heartedness as she began to fall for Tamino, Pamina worked her character’s throughline so thoughtfully that she helped the story move forward and hang together.
The baritone Ruben Drole as Pappageno, a character that is always a crowd favorite, stole the show. Clearly, those of us who saw his performance were privileged in beholding the birth of a new star. His voice allowed him that extra gear that singers of his caliber have. He also played silent physical comedy with assurance. At the same time, Drole was never afraid of stillness. His duet with Pamina, when the two just sat on the edge of the stage, with their feet dangling into the orchestra pit, was a sheer delight, so clearly did they communicate an emotional as well as a musical affinity.
The only thing that seemed an unsuccessful directorial choice was Leiser’s and Caurier’s direction of sticking Sarastro on stilts. Clearly uncomfortable, Kevin Short lost power rather than gaining it, albeit from his higher vantage.
Christian Fenouillat’s designs featured a most interesting treatment of the world of Sarastro with luminous pyramids on the floor suggesting a futuristic cult. Agostino Cavalca’s costumes were best when deliciously over the top, especially the Queen of the Night’s scarlet couturier event and the aforementioned buxom wench gear of her Ladies.
Most of all, I was struck by the clarity of the production. By the time we came to the end of the opera with the blessing of the couple in the name of Isis and Osiris, I felt that I understood the story as never before.
In every festival I have ever been to (and I’ve been to many both on the North American continent and in Europe), at least one performance has transformed the way I have thought about or worked in theatre. In 1976 at BITEF in the then Tito’s undivided Yugoslavia it was seeing Yuri Lyubimov’s Na Taganke Company perform outside of Russia for the first time, particularly in their production of Hamlet with the Russian poet-singer Vladimir Vissotski in the title role. In 1983 at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, I was introduced to the work of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil. It’s not always been a totally happy experience. One year, in Canada, at the Festival des Amèriques, I was scared out of my wits by actors with filed teeth charging at me with what looked and sounded like buzz saws. I certainly have never forgot that show.
But seeing Spoleto Festival reminded me of the importance, especially for artists, of seeking out opportunities to immerse oneself in the cutting-edge productions often featured at such gatherings. The pieces, jostling up against each other, seem to set up a dialogue with curious and often powerful resonances.
The Red Shoes, adapted by Kneehigh Theatre
As much as I loved my experiences of Émilie and The Magic Flute, the third evening in Spoleto, provided an experience of such magnitude it was like an emotional seismic shock. We were back at Memminger Auditorium. The space that had so recently been civilized by the performance of Futral and the elegant set pieces was no more. The projections were gone. The space now seemed cavernous, even bleak, with a flimsy scaffold propped in front of what looked like black corridors leading nowhere. What followed was a performance of The Red Shoes, a startling and confusing conjoining of a story I thought I knew well but reinterpreted by the British Kneehigh Company.
I am not sure I can analyze or even understand what I saw. I can only describe certain stage pictures. At the outset, three men and one woman, all dressed in identical crude and discolored underwear with shaved heads, went through certain rituals. A fifth performer, a male in drag, wearing a long dress, floor-length furry coat, and fright wig, stood on a scaffold structure above them and went about casting the roles and directing the other performers in their story telling. I couldn’t help wondering whether this curious cabaret MC (Giles King), barking most often in German at the others’ cowering emaciated figures, wasn’t meant to suggest a Nazi commander ordering a strange performing group at a concentration camp. Clearly the others, often glaring at us, were unwilling participants. The aspect of humans being reduced to performing circus animals made the whole premise of this work and our role in watching it edgy and uncomfortable.
The Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale was used as a springboard to reinterpret an already frightening bedtime story about desire into something truly nightmarish. A poor little girl wants a pair of red shoes and becomes obsessed with the objects of her desire, so much so that she wears them to church in what is judged vain blasphemy. She begins to dance and dance. She can’t stop. In this version, she not only gets strung up to have her painted red, sinful feet washed clean but later meets a butcher who all too willingly assists the girl in escaping her exhaustion by cutting off her feet with the offending manic shoes. Still they continue to animate.
Director Emma Rice clearly does not cringe from strong material and has little interest in wallowing in values of romance or redemption. Like the MC character, she seemingly dares the audience to watch. But Rice gets the raw truths embedded in fairy tales and knows how to theatrically give them substance. The humor in this, and there is much, is of the blackest hue.
The performer-centered company used simple means to tell the story, recycling a few props with great inventiveness. Battered suitcases that stored the shoes and suggestions of costumes were turned around to reveal printed announcements of scenes or characters. Later still, the valises became other adjuncts such as, in one case, the steering wheel of a bus. A push broom became a crucifix and later crutches that The Girl, played by Patrycja Kujawska, gruesomely and painfully used to walk on her remaining stubs. The props, like the scenes, changed so quickly that they challenged those of us watching to keep up. Periodically, the actors stood in a line and swayed or performed a simple clog dance perhaps as a way to have the audience absorb what was seen.
The cast was as effective and uniquely styled an ensemble as I have ever encountered.
In addition to the one female and four male actors and storytellers, there were two musicians, one playing on each side of the stage. It is hard to single out a performance from this tightknit ensemble. Suffice it to say Kujawska, a most physically expressive performer, styled her role with great technique and intensity. Her male cohorts used both physical prowess and verbal humor to great effect. Giles King, the MC, spoke most of the rhyming narration and seemed at times to jolly the audience along with a familiar camp style, but at other times he turned lethal. His macabre wit was matched by performances of Dave Mynne, Robert Luckay, and Mike Sheperd, all playing a variety of roles. Musicians Stu Barker and Ian Ross underscored the physical scenes and also accompanied the ensemble in a variety of enlivening songs.
This was so disturbing a work that it took me hours of processing and physically stoking myself with victuals to come back into my body. I kept turning over the experience in my mind. How had these ideas manifested? What were the meanings of certain staged images?
The Cripple of Innishman by Martin McDonagh
The Cripple of Innishman, the Irish Druid Theatre Company’s contribution to the Festival, was the last big theatrical event we attended. The production was mounted earlier this year in Washington, DC, at the Kennedy Center to unanimous audience and critical acclaim. The play, by Martin McDonagh, is that best of the new Irish writing. You wince while you laugh at the verbal vivisection that goes on amongst the characters. Gender, filial affection and respect, treatment of handicapped people, old age – everything is ridiculed and trammeled.
The acting was superlative when it played in Charleston. Particularly good were the whacky pairings that McDonagh uses to destroy entirely the myth of the sentimentality of the Irish in this decidedly black comedy. There are the nutty “aunties”, stir-crazy aunt Kate (Ingrid Craigie), who talks to stones, and Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy), who controls the inventory of their village store with a vengeance. Their back and forth bickering of two people who have only had each other all their lives was deliciously delivered, like a piece of music to stave off the lonely pounding of the sea at their doorstep. There is the brother and sister pair of Slippy Helen (Claire Dunne) tormenting her brother Bartley (Laurence Kinlan), including the ever-anticipated and gloriously-repeated egg smashing over Bartley’s head. (It seemed such a wonderful release of family stress that I thought to take up the practice.)
Most of all there is the mother-son relationship, hilariously brought to life by a whiskey-swigging Mammy O’Dougal (Nancy E. Carroll) and the bragging gossip JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley). He curses his mother with every breath, hoping she’d get on with dying and helping her to it with more whiskey. Mammy sucks on her bottle as she sits up in her bed, defying him and life itself, looking like a witch about to take off on a broomstick. At the center of the story is “Cripple Billy”, played with great courage and sensitivity by Tadhg Murphy but, inevitably to my mind, he became little more than a straight man to the other, more colorful characters.
Underneath the laughs this production aroused came the chilling realization that these lonely, frustrated people, clinging to their rocky outpost island in the Irish sea like barnacles, were capable of cruel brutality even infanticide. The most horrific and powerful scene for me was where BabbyBobby, played with coiled intensity by Liam Carney, suddenly let go with all his pent up frustration and loss and pounded on Billy. He had seemed the moral center, the one that had given Billy his chance to escape the island, and his protector. But McDonagh didn’t let us go there or put our trust in heroes.
After I left the Dock Theatre, where the piece was performed, I began to analyze why, as good as the performances and writing were, I was experiencing something of a let down. I began to think about how a theatrical work plays in a space and the relationship of stage space to auditorium. It reminded me that possibly the biggest challenge a producing team faces in putting together a festival is to secure the environment for that optimal performer-audience relationship.
In Charleston, the original director of The Cripple of Innishman, Garry Hynes, who brought such a sure touch to this piece in the production’s conception, seemed very far away. That might also be said of the relationship of the actors to the audience sitting in the Dock Street Theatre.
The Dock Street Theatre is a renovated gem on the same grounds that housed what is reportedly the first theatre in America. I had heard an excellent chamber music program there two days earlier where the curtain, painted with a portrait of the original Georgian theatre, served as a charming backdrop to the musicians. But for this production, the proscenium arch made Francis O’Connor’s main set of the aunties’ small shop look like the pre-opening of a Wall Mart the shelves were so long and bare. The set changes seemed arduous and clunky. Even the energy from the actors got a little swallowed by the space itself.
Just as difficult as determining the proper space is how to put together the viewing order of works at a festival. Had I seen the McDonagh’s drama first, I might have enjoyed the show more fully. But after the fireworks of The Magic Flute, the visionary theatricality of Émilie, and the emotional rawness of The Red Shoes, I felt just a little underwhelmed by the comparatively prosaic style of the drama presented in a proscenium space. It was as if the piece at the end couldn’t lift off its emotional runway, try as the actors might.
Thirteen Most Beautiful
The only other misstep in the Festival’s programming in my opinion was a late night event which, leading up to the Festival, got hyped with the biggest buzz. Thirteen Most Beautiful was “very New York” and featured the Indie pop husband and wife team of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. The duo performed what amounted to curious requiems for Andy Warhol’s famous and infamous in front of original screen tests filmed by the pop artist.
The words could not be understood by this understated guitar-playing couple, and the music was simply not memorable. In its performance, Thirteen Most Beautiful was a dreary celebration of the ordinary. As each screen test flickered from the shadowy head shots of mostly awkward participants into a white death, it seemed like a fitting disintegration of these once fashionable but truly very sad and self-destructive people after their few minutes of conferred fame.
But part of a festival is to wander down odd artistic alleys. All in all, the Spoleto Festival was a splendid journey and one I’d highly recommend.
Next year’s Spoleto Festival will be May 25 – June 10, 2012. The season will be announced in January.
Would love to hear what you saw at this year at Spoleto.
Spoleto’s production of The Magic Flute
The Red Shoes at Spoleto