By Paul Hyde
CHARLESTON, S.C. – Celebrating its 38th year, the Spoleto Festival USA continues to exhibit a captivating chutzpah. True, this Charleston-based festival always offers plenty of appeal for traditional tastes, including a fine series of chamber music and choral and orchestral concerts featuring the big names of classical music. But these are balanced by bolder, contemporary fare: Spoleto has long championed the works, for instance, of minimalist composers – most prominently, Philip Glass.
Spoleto also is restlessly eclectic, offering not only opera and orchestral music but also theater, dance, jazz, popular music, and a European-style circus or acrobatic troupe. “It’s a wonderful spectrum of different kinds of work,” said the festival’s director, Nigel Redden. “But everything is about some kind of story and human emotion. That’s what connects everything.”
This year’s Spoleto, running May 23-June 8, comprises 152 performances by ensembles from 14 countries. The festival utilizes more than a dozen venues in Charleston’s charming historic district. In its artistic diversity, Spoleto perhaps resembles a smaller version of New York’s Lincoln Center Festival. No surprise: the two performing arts events share the same director, Redden.
Of course, not everything at Spoleto will appeal to all tastes. As a veteran of a dozen Spoletos, I’ve witnessed a few uninspired works (Glass’ Kepler, from 2012, for instance) and some dance or performance art pieces that left me flummoxed. But it’s hard to fault the festival’s artistic aspirations and overall excellence.
Among the three operas this season are two by composers associated with minimalism: El Niño, John Adams’ retelling of the Nativity story with a spotlight on the voices of women; and Facing Goya, Michael Nyman’s surreal meditation on sci-fi and art criticism that involves attempts to clone painter Francisco Goya by the use of his skull. True to form, Spoleto offers the productions with an appealing hook: El Niño, which has been performed mostly in concert or semi-staged settings since its world premiere in 2000, will be given a full-scale staging by English director John La Bouchardiere. Facing Goya, which also premiered in 2000, is being presented for the first time in the U.S. Nyman, 70, best known for his film scores (The Piano, Gattaca, among many others) and credited with coining the term “minimal music,” will be on hand for “An Evening with Michael Nyman” on May 26.
Leoš Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová, the third opera in the festival’s season, will be offered in a new staging by Tony Award-winning Irish director Garry Hynes, who’ll be directing her first opera. American soprano Betsy Horne takes on the title role, which she has performed to acclaim in Germany. “The music is really heart-wrenchingly beautiful,” Redden said. “It’s a poignant story about a woman who’s trying to walk the line between her sense of duty and a sense of freedom.” The splendid Westminster Choir, with its vibrant, polished sound, serves as the resident chorus for all of the operas. Conductors include Joe Miller (El Niño), John Kennedy (Facing Goya), and Anne Manson (Káťa Kabanová).
Kennedy, Spoleto’s resident conductor and director of orchestral activities, oversees the intimate afternoon Intermezzi concerts and the Music In Time series of contemporary pieces. He also will conduct full orchestral concerts on May 28 (works of Barber, Adams, and Bartók) and June 3 (featuring Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony). Miller, who took the reins as the festival’s choral director following the retirement last year of the respected Joseph Flummerfelt, will conduct the Westminster Choir in concerts May 29 and June 1 featuring works of Brahms, Duruflé, and others.
The twice-daily chamber music concerts, often featuring young American musicians and presided over by the engaging violinist Geoff Nuttall (dubbed “the Jon Stewart of Chamber Music” by The New York Times), take place in the historic Dock Street Theatre. Every two years, an ensemble of actors from Dublin’s Gate Theatre brings a much-anticipated production to Spoleto. The troupe’s stagings of classic plays (Coward, Maugham, Chekhov) are always well-attended and never disappoint. This season, the Gate will feature the American premiere of the stage adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel My Cousin Rachel, about a young man who falls in love with the widow of his wealthy guardian.
Among the more pop-oriented performers this season will be singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, jazz singer Kat Edmonson and banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. Spoleto Festival will once again be unable to use its primary large venue, the Gaillard Auditorium, as it undergoes a two-year, $142 million renovation. It should be ready in time for the 2015 Spoleto season. Dance figures heavily at Spoleto, with a return visit this year by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. The company will present works by two giants of modern dance choreography, William Forsythe and Jiří Kylián. Also featured will be the innovative tap troupe Dorrance Dance, led by Michelle Dorrance. Gregory Maqoma, a South African dancer visiting Spoleto for the first time, will bring a solo work, Exit/Exist, inspired by his ancestors’ struggle to maintain their cultural identity.
“He’s telling the story of his great-grandfather, who was a 19th-century warrior,” Redden said.”It’s a story of change and past that’s disappeared but still has something to tell us in the present. Four wonderful South African singers accompany the dancers. It’s really a beautiful piece.” The Australian acrobatic troupe Gravity & Other Myths will present A Simple Space. Acrobats and European-style circuses always prove particularly popular – especially for families. For tickets or other information, see the Spoleto Festival’s website or call 843-579-3100.
Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for the Greenville (S.C.) News, the Southeast Editor of Classical Voice North America, and a Contributing Editor to BroadwayWorld.com. Follow Paul Hyde on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.