To judge the relative importance of a performing arts festival, one must ask the questions: “How are the arts furthered?” and “How are the artists being pushed?” Challenges come in all shapes and sizes. Though “classic” in form, the Miami City Ballet is a relatively young company that boasts some terrific soloists from America’s two hemispheres, and it was evident that all were challenging themselves through a variety of choreographic styles.
In the classic opera slot, during the opening performance of Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei, the diva had to die twice.
General Director of Spoleto Festival Nigel Redden has been particularly adept over the years at balancing programmatic content that fulfills audience expectations of “best of international class” while introducing the untried and celebrating true experimentation in music, opera, theater and dance.
One could argue that audiences must also push themselves – to take in programs across disciplines and out of their comfort zone. As a couple of out-of-towners, we also managed another local challenge of walking across the Arthur Ravenal Bridge, a great span of 2.5 miles that links the town of Charleston with the outer islands.
Miami City Ballet
We missed Spoleto Festival’s opening night event where Jerome Robbins was honored with a program titled “The Art of the Pas de Deux.” This, like celebrations for Leonard Bernstein around the country, was another big centennial bash. Nonetheless, on the second day of Spoleto Festival, we were treated to an eclectic program that included some rich dance pairings.
The evening ranged from a work by the 20th century’s master, George Balanchine, who defined for more than one generation a classical American ballet style, to contemporary ballet choreographers setting original works on the young dynamic company. In between, MCB presented a romantic pas de deux, something we might call a “cross-over” dance-work from Sir Kenneth Macmillan, with original choreography from his 1994 remounting of the All-American musical, Carousel.
2018 Spoleto Festival USA
closes June 10, 2018
Details and tickets
The athleticism of the dancers was in great evidence throughout the evening as was the display of individual strengths and personality.
Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht” was most realized in the segment when the dancers ran on with their hair loosed and streaming. These wild women channeled bacchanalian freedom, strength, and frenzy.
The “best of” the evening should go to Alexei Ratmansky‘s “DSCH.” Having premiered other Ratmansky’s works, the company seemed totally in sync with both his language and spirit. For Spoleto 2018, the company has gone back to this earlier work. The choreography, dance and music came together, with the music of the titled ode to Dmitri Shostakovich being played brilliantly by Francisco Rennó. Holly Hynes’ contemporary costume designs were both bold and fun, with the men dressed in wrestler costumes while the girls wore get-ups like cheerleaders, both sporting the colors of USC’s Trojans.
The piece never stops, and dancers bounce and fly across the stage. Ratmansky most inventively combines classical enchainements with modern flourishes; now a hip extension, now repeated straight-legged jumps and flexed hands and feet. The dancers got it.
With Simone Messmer and Chase Swatosh, the company has found a partnership of perfection. Dressed alike in pistachio green that only emphasized their same pale marble skin tones and exact languorous length and line of limbs, they delivered a pas de deux in the middle of this work that was something so beautiful I found sitting forward in my seat and teary-eyed.
And then, in glorious contrast, three dancers brought fire and dazzling radiant pop onto the stage in a trio performed by Nathalia Arja, Renan Cerdeiro and Kleber Rebello, all three hailing originally from Brazil. Their leaps and turns were heightened by fast changes of focus which all three excelled at, and their radiant exuberance makes them stand-out poster dancers of MCB style.
Also, very strong indeed was the partnership of Jennifer Lauren and Chase Swatosh, who embodied the characters of Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow from Carousel. Both can physicalize comedy as well as romantic sentiment, and it was a pure joy to see dancers of this caliber taking to new heights the physical technique and expressiveness for the musical number. Lauren and Swatosh gave the audience the arc of this tragic love story symbolized in a single dance.
However, the mark of a great ballet company has traditionally been seen as the accomplished cohesion of its corps de ballet. One measures a ballet company by the precision of curve of the group’s port de bras and the synchronous movements of bourées, leaps, and extensions that exactly come together at a point of stillness.
So one must ask, do the young dances of MCB maintain the same discipline of line at wrist or neck? Do they arrive at the same precise moment? Sometimes. And no.
Truthfully, the least successful dance of the evening was “Heatscape,” the second commissioned ballet for Miami City Ballet by the hot contemporary ballet choreographer Justin Peck. The problem started for me with the enormous canvas backdrop, also commissioned, from Sheppard Fairey, national sensation and citizen-artist originally from Charleston. The curtain’s style had something of the bold graphics of his best known poster-art work, but the vibrant colors and designs made the skimpy pale costumes by Reid Barthelme and Harriet Jung disappear. Sadly, there was no interaction possible between art forms.
The dancing did bring focus to some of the other dancers of the company and we got to watch the radiant and charismatic Emily Bromberg, who was featured in Balanchine’s piece. She is a joy to watch whatever style she embodies.
Pia de’ Tolomei
Gaetano Donizetti’s Opera had its US premiere Sunday night at Spoleto Festival.
The co-production had some earmarks of an Italian invasion. Director Andre Cigni was present, lending European flair and haut style to Charleston society in black tux with a long black and white scarf. Several others of the creative team were in tow, including designer Dario Gessati.
Originally written in 1837, Gessati has set the production in 1940’s Italy with the opposing political forces being represented by the Black shirt fascists and the staunch rebel resistance. The concept worked, and the staging of the chorus, with representative singers of the Westminster Choir, was given great specificity and richness by costume designer Tommaso Lagattolla.
He incorporated a giant framing device inside of which members of the choir gathered posing for vintage photos. The stage was also strewn with the clutter of Entartetekunst (decadent art) as the German would say, or were these stolen works spirited underground for protection dumped into underground cells? Later in the show, Ghino, a character mostly up to mischief and mayhem, nearly sets fire to the canvases that have been liberally doused with petrol by fascist guards. It’s a chilling image integrated dramatically and telling the story of power gone mad.
There are almost always hiccoughs in a first night of an opera. Due to economics and the “so many moveable parts,” there are never enough rehearsals. Sadly, the frame took over most of the stage, crowding the chorus and making for awkward crosses by the lead singers. Further, it distracted from the action when the lumpy structure had to be slid here and there for new scenes to take place. There were other moments where some of the less seasoned chorus members twitched in the middle of an aria or key characters slid into a better position for a “park and bark” aria.
Isaac Frishman who sings the tenor role of Ghino meets the curious challenge of singing the love arias – for which he is well equipped – with the demands of the drama where, let’s face it, his character Ghino represents more the Harvey Weinstein role in a #MeToo situation. On the opening night, he was still finding the physical and emotional shape that would carry this complicated role.
On the other hand, Nathan Granner grabs the role of Ubaldo with a sure dramatic sensibility in the opera’s opening moments. In addition to using his voice to great effect, he also carries the style of that period from the tilt of his hat to his low-centered slouch.
Cassandra Zoe Velasco as Rodrigo was both physically powerful and vocally expressive as Pia’s brother Rodrigo, an ardent rebel, who unwittingly becomes responsible for his sister’s death. Velasco is rooted in every scene.
Valdis Jansons sings the role of Pia’s husband and mayor of Siena, in this production a “Black Shirt” Fascist who’s risen to power. He rules the stage with a theatrical presence, coiled with the energy of jealousy mixed with seething rage. If occasionally, his strong baritone sound slipped back on certain notes in this performance, he nonetheless held his course and pulled all through with his bravura experience.
For opera lovers, the moment of truth came when soprano Amanda Woodbury first opened her mouth, singing “My soul is carried away.” Most in the audience ceased to care about anything else. Woodbury is the real deal, and her vocal purity fulfilled the character of the faithful wife, who even faces death with love and compassion for the man who has accused her and is ultimately the instrument of her demise. The coloratura brings radiant glory to the inspiration of Pia as if she were born to the role.
Vera Savage as Pia’s lady-in-waiting gives us a performance as statuesque as her voice is strong and rich. She moved back and forth between leading the Women’s Chorus and stepping forward as a featured soloist with equal aplomb.
The Westminster Choir members made up the Chorus, and this preeminent choral training group brought to the work a glorious sound. What a wonderful opportunity for them and us that Spoleto Festival folds them into the mix as an opera chorus. I’ve never heard better. Praises for Joe Miller who has given these singers such masterful preparation.
Speaking of great contributions, Lidiya Yankovskaya is a formidable conductor and member of the creative team. She led both choir and orchestra with authority opening night, keeping the music moving forward and navigating the dynamic shifts of Donizetti score.
During the climactic final aria, the lights went out. It only added to the drama as singer and orchestra struggled gallantly on. The bodiless voice of the stage manager halted the proceedings, and the audience sat while “technical difficulties” were solved. Could the beautiful soprano hit her marks again? Could we suspend disbelief again to follow the end of the story? Finally, the lights came back on and Woodbury returned to the stage to welcoming applause. If anything, she sang the piece even more beautifully, and we were lucky for this reprise because what a gorgeous aria it is.
Gracie. And bravi tutti.
Tree of Codes
A man dressed in a get-up something between a kabuki stage manager and an elementary-school crossing guard (with his neon orange and green harness of straps-become-vest) enters the space and lays out a costume. Woman enters. He dresses her. He undresses her. She crosses the stage. He dresses her in new outfit (this one looks as if it’s made up of garbage bag strips.) She sings. Another man enters. This is Son. He sings. She sings. The woman gets re-dressed. The Son gets under a giant baby blue blanket. Later he wears the blanket as a centurion robe. (They both look increasingly ridiculous.)
The libretto by Liza Lim is taken from Jonathan Sarfran Foer’s Tree of Codes and Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles (but only individual words have been picked out to form a new work.) There are also nods to Goethe’s Erlkönig and the writings of Michel Foucault.
Lim also wrote the music. The assemblage of textures included slide whistles, kazoos, plucked and thumped sounds, emulated farts on brass, and human articulations.
Audience members began to peel off minutes into the performance. Two people were seen clambering up and over the balcony of Dock Street Theatre to escape, the image resonating (as the arts do here at Spoleto) with the scene of rats deserting Hamlin in the lively puppet show The Pied Piper.
Dominating the stage was a tilted edifice by designer Scott Zielinski that sometimes looked like a leaning tower, at other times the inside of a computer, and finally an undersea wreck. The play of light on this structure by the remarkable lighting designer James F. Ingalls was the most mesmerizing and to my mind successful aspect of the experiment.
Otherwise, most of us were struggling to immerse ourselves in a vision, or maybe a story, or maybe just get some emotional truth. (Singers Marisol Montalvo and Eliot Madore had obviously been asked by stage director Ong Keng Sen to carry off both a hide-and-peep event and, at another point, a flirtation. I believed none of it.) The piece seemed to be no more about anything than (literally) stage dressing.
Baffling. Self-absorbed. Pretentious.
The perpetuation of mendacity was only outdone by the Director and Co’s self-adulation during the curtain calls.
Running Time of Miami City Ballet:2 hours including 2 intermissions
Running Time of Pia de’ Tolomei: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission
Running Time of Tree of Codes: 1 hour 15 minutes without an intermission