Spoleto Fest USA Turns Modernist With 2014 Lineup

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A scene from the Spoleto Festival's American-premiere production of Michael Nyman's 'Facing Goya.'  (Production photos by Julia Lynn Photography)
A scene from the Spoleto Festival USA’s American-premiere production of Michael Nyman’s ‘Facing Goya.’
(Production photos by Julia Lynn Photography)
By Perry Tannenbaum

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Not so very long ago, contemporary classical music was discreetly marginalized at Spoleto Festival USA, appearing almost exclusively in John Kennedy’s Music in Time series – three or four concerts per season at the Simons Center on the campus of the College of Charleston. One or two pieces written after the middle of the 20th century might be nestled among the 11 programs presented at the Dock Street Theatre in the lunchtime Chamber Music series piloted by Charles Wadsworth. Until 2007, a new or recent opera could be expected maybe once every three seasons, certainly not as often as the Festival’s excavations among forgotten baroque works or early 20th century rediscoveries.

Michael Nyman, composer of 'Facing Goya.'
Michael Nyman, composer of ‘Facing Goya.’

Living composers might be found among the choral works sung by the Westminster Choir under the direction of Joseph Flummerfelt, but the sound was far from edgy, and the mid-century line was rarely crossed in the orchestral concerts when Emmanuel Villaume wielded the baton. All of those worthy musicians have moved on or retired in recent years – except for Kennedy, who has ascended to the position of resident conductor and director of orchestral activities.

The difference has become quite pronounced. Gone are the days when you could avoid new music simply by skirting the Simons Center. During this year’s opening holiday weekend, audiences at Dock Street Theatre heard selections by Georges Aperghis, Michael Colgrass, and György Kurtág intertwined with Mozart, Haydn, and Mendelssohn in the Chamber Music concerts now hosted by violinist Geoff Nuttall. Of the 18 composers that will be presented at the afternoon Intermezzo series, another former haven for Bach and Mozart, only two were born as early as the 19th century. The scales have similarly tipped at the late afternoon Westminster Choir concerts led by Joe Miller, and in the evening orchestral concerts, Beethoven, Bartók, and Barber are time-sharing with John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Michael Gordon, and Michael Nyman.

Museop Kim, Suzanna Guzman, and Thomas Michael Allen in 'Goya.'
Museop Kim, Suzanna Guzman, and Thomas Michael Allen in ‘Goya.’

So there may not be a more formidable champion of new music than the thoroughly modernized Spoleto Festival USA, since it remains the largest annual performing arts festival in the New World. The 2014 opera lineup – Leoš Janáček’s Kát’a Kababová, Adams’ El Niño, and the U.S. premiere of Nyman’s Facing Goya – shouldn’t be considered an aberration in its modernist leaning, especially since the production teams know so well what they’re doing.

Most revelatory is the American debut of Facing Goya in a Spoleto co-production with the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Staged by the Singapore Festival’s director, Ong Ken Sen, and conducted by Kennedy at Dock Street Theatre, Goya is a four-act meditation on the conflict between the creative spirit and the threats of scientific measurement and commercial exploitation. What triggers this dialectic is Goya’s dying wish that his skull be separated from his body and hidden so that craniometrists don’t ransack his grave to practice their bogus science upon him.

This skull – or perhaps a fake – has fallen into the hands of the opera’s central character, the Art Banker, a woman whose instincts personify the conflict in her name: she wants to snare the highest possible price for Goya’s skull, yet knowing its background, she also feels protective toward the artist. In the ensuing fantasia, spanning three centuries, the Art Banker is assailed in successive acts by a quartet of craniometrists, a quartet of art historians, and a quartet of biotechnologists. The repugnant doctrines expressed by the craniometrists of Act I are actually eclipsed by those of the art historians in Act II;  the provocative libretto by Victoria Hardie exhumes the hacks who cravenly confirmed Hitler’s sick prejudices. To underscore the abhorrent nature of these scientific orthodoxies, the two vocalists who espouse them, tenor Thomas Michael Allen and soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, are both white, while the pushback comes from African-American soprano Aundi Marie Moore and Korean baritone Museop Kim.

Thomas Michael Allen, Aundi Marie Moore, Suzanna Guzman (at rear), Anne-Carolyn Bird & Museop Kim in 'Facing Goya.'
Allen, Moore, Guzman (at rear), Bird and Kim in the Spoleto production of ‘Facing Goya.’

After the break came the biotechnologists, eager to turn a profit on Goya’s creative DNA by patenting it. This  new wave of scientists emerged from the wings looking pointedly ridiculous, with large, glittery skulls of different colors  – so large that they needed to balance their heads as they walked across the raked stage. In another nice touch from costume designer Anita Yavich, the  craniometrists earlier emerged with white bat-like wings.

Yet the most striking aspect of the production is the collaboration between set designer Riccardo Hernandez and projection designer Austin Switser. The endless symmetries and geometric designs, perpetually flashing up the slope of the stage and across the upstage screen, work wonderfully with Hardie’s idea-driven libretto and Nyman’s relentlessly propulsive score, demonstrating that an opera of ideas has truly exciting possibilities. We don’t see Kennedy’s excitement in the orchestra pit, but it’s unquestionably contagious for the audience and the cast. Each of the four shape-shifting vocalists gets chances to shine. Allen and Bird make us cringe with the noxious ideas they spout – exacerbated by how high and loud they can go on the staff.

Late in the evening, Moore sings what we can safely call an arietta, not exactly what we expect in a Nyman opera; and with the aid of a toreador jacket – and perhaps the wonders (or horrors) of modern science – Kim appears in Act IV as Goya. Exactly what he is, and by what right he demands the return of Goya’s DNA, remain deliciously open questions. At the center of the swirling ideas, Suzanna Guzmán was somewhat disappointing as the Art Banker. Problems with the lower end of Nyman’s vocal writing were fairly consistent in the first two acts on opening night. When Guzmán sounded confident and comfortable, there was a nice contrast between her ample vibrato and the rest of the cast.

Anne-Carolyn Bird as an art historian in 'Facing Goya.'
Anne-Carolyn Bird as an art historian in ‘Facing Goya.’

Like Kim, Bird briefly acquires some individuality as the key art historian. It’s an episode that might first appear like nothing more than an attractive technical gimmick as she stands in the center of the stage, often looking up at a live camera that projects her image onto the rear screen. When Goya’s luminous skull descended at the start of Act III, the meaning of the camera mounted nearby suddenly snapped into place: It was the eye of Goya looking down from a place above us, beholding all his paranoid fears coming true over and over in three consecutive centuries.

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Janáček, Nyman’s Czech teammate in the 2014 opera lineup, is also served quite handsomely in Kát’a Kabanova, interestingly enough with a female tandem at the reins, conductor Anne Manson and director Garry Hynes. Set designer Matt Saunders only lets us down somewhat in the third act denouement, giving us surreal sketches of where we are when our erratic heroine blurts out her infidelity – and where she finds her final refuge. But Saunders’ low ceiling and the inelegant sliver he carves into the Sottile Theatre stage are constant reminders of Kát’a’s caged predicament, loved by two men who are both tyrannized by loathsome parents.

Rolando Sanz as Boris and Betsy Horne as Kát’a.
Rolando Sanz as Boris and Betsy Horne as Kát’a.

Milquetoasts they may be, but the tenors who fill out the love triangle, Dennis Peterson as Kát’a’s querulous husband Tichon and Rolando Sanz as the younger, more desirable Boris, are both outstanding. Contralto Jennifer Roderer as Kát’a’s mother-in-law Kabanicha and bass Jan Opalach as Boris’s rich uncle Dikoi are both fearsome creatures out of Kafka. But the real find here is Betsy Horne, the California-born soprano making her American debut in the title role.

I could never berate Karita Mattila, who was absolutely triumphant as Kát’a in the Metropolitan Opera production in 2004. Watching Horne underscores the distortion that Mattila’s radiant charisma wreaked upon the story. She was a queen or a goddess trapped in a gilded cage, but Horne can easily manage to bring the story down to earth, so that I found myself seeing a kinship with the tawdry ending of Berg’s Wozzeck.

Horne’s relative lack of regality and grace becomes as much an asset as her youth, and any impurities we hear in her singing play powerfully into Kát’a’s deeply neurotic character. Hynes has Opalach waving his arms a lot as Dikoi, as if he regards younger folk as annoying insects to be swatted away. Hynes also makes much of Roderer’s entrances and exits; Kabanicha not only rules her household, she blocks the light coming into it. We’ve had other Janáček gems at Spoleto before, including Jenufa in 1998 and The Excursions of Mr. Brouček in 1996, but if the music of Kát’a isn’t quite as touching as Jenufa, conductor Manson makes sure that the Spoleto Festival Orchestra and the Westminster Choir are every bit as ravishing. The cast is very fine down to the wanton comprimario roles, Alex Richardson as Boris’s friend Vanya and the other Pandarus of the piece, Megan Marino  as Varvara.

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Among the instrumental concerts of the holiday weekend, I’d have to draw my favorite from the Chamber Music offerings at the Dock Street. But which one? There were mighty finales at all three, including Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, Mozart’s G Minor Piano Quartet, and Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 – all magnificently played.

For sheer spectacle, I’d have to give the nod to the second program, which began even before the audience was seated with Nuttall, his violinist wife Livia Sohn, violist Gabriela Diaz, and bassist Anthony Manzo forming a Viennese dance band in the lobby. That was a suitable warm-up to the opening lark when we convened inside, a Joseph Lanner waltz played by the same combo. After tossing off that bonbon, Nuttall expounded on the notoriety of Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli (who murdered a castrato and became a fugitive), as well as his musical virtues.

Specifically, Nuttall described Pandolfi’s “La Cesta” sonata as a case of Bach meeting bluegrass and Schoenberg. I’d only heard the piece on CD with harpsichordist Richard Egarr and violinist Andrew Manze, so it was gratifying to hear a richer trio version with an added cello part performed by David Ying. The piece also served as an auspicious introduction to Mark Fewer, the incoming violinist in Nuttall’s St. Lawrence String Quartet, which will be fully mustered for the final week of the festival. Fewer played with the bravura of a co-first violinist rather than a subdued second, as Pedja Muzijevic rounded out the ensemble at the keyboard.

Montreal-based percussionist Aiyun Huang made an impressive Spoleto debut.
Percussionist Aiyun Huang made a superb debut – in another context.

More adventure followed as percussionist Aiyun Huang made a stunning debut in Aperghis’ Le corps á corp – with a zarb (a Persian drum) and a glass of red wine. Underscoring the theatricality of the piece, there was a blackout as Huang took her place on the floor of the stage cradling her little drum. Next to her, as the light came up, was a small table and a deep purple cloth that made the wine look classy. Wailing a rapid and colorful vocalise as she pounded the drum, Huang didn’t even begin to notice the wine until halfway through the piece. From that point on, we watched the percussionist’s valiant struggle not to succumb to the mighty allure of the grape. She lost, but we won.

Perry Tannenbaum regularly covers the performing arts scene in Charlotte, N.C., for Creative Loafing and CVNC. His CD and concert reviews have also appeared in American Record Guide and JazzTimes.