Spoleto Presents Operas New And Very, Very Old

Qian Yi in Huang Ruo's 'Paradise Interrupted,' in Metropolitan Museum of Art performance last March (Photo by Stephanie Berger)
Qian Yi in Huang Ruo’s ‘Paradise Interrupted,’ in a Metropolitan Museum of Art performance last March.
(Photo by Stephanie Berger)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Spoleto Festival has built its considerable reputation on championing the new and innovative while also reviving little-known musical gems. This year’s festival, which runs May 22 through June 7, epitomizes the Spoleto style. The world premiere of an opera by Chinese-born American composer Huang Ruo will share billing with an Italian baroque opera, Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, which evidently hasn’t been performed in 350 years.  The two operatic centerpieces are among dozens of concerts and stage performances planned for the 39th Spoleto Festival USA.

Violinist Geoff Nuttall directs chamber music series. (Julia Lynn Photography)
Violinist Geoff Nuttall directs the chamber music series.
(Julia Lynn Photography)

Many summer festivals focus only on music or theater. But under the longtime leadership of Nigel Redden (who also oversees the Lincoln Center Festival), Spoleto is nothing if not restlessly eclectic, encompassing opera, dance, theater, classical music, jazz, pop concerts, and European-style circus. More than 150 performances will be presented throughout the festival, which takes place in various venues in Charleston’s charming Historic District.

However, one of its largest venues, the Gaillard Center Performance Hall, will not be ready as planned for this year’s festival. During the past three years, the center has been undergoing a $145 million renovation, and construction delays have postponed the opening to Oct. 9.

The Scottish Ballet will bring its acclaimed adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire to this year’s festival and the popular Shakespeare’s Globe company will journey from London to make its first-ever appearance in Charleston with a new production of Romeo and Juliet.

For the classical music fan, the two operas will no doubt attract the most attention. But among the other offerings is a bounty of orchestral, choral, and chamber music concerts.

Paradise Interrupted

Ruo, who earned raves last summer for the American premiere of his opera Dr. Sun Yat-sen at Santa Fe Opera, often works in the Western musical tradition. But with Paradise Interrupted, Ruo embraces his Eastern roots more than ever before.

“My previous three operas use only Western operatic voices,” Ruo said by phone from Charleston during a break in rehearsals. “This [one] is unique in that it integrates traditional Chinese operatic singing with Western operatic singing.”

The story of the opera borrows themes from both Western and Eastern sources — from Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the vivid dream of Du Liniang in Tang Xianzu’s classic 1598 play, The Peony Pavilion.

In Paradise Interrupted, a woman dreams she has met her lover and begins searching for an unattainable ideal as a vast garden grows from an empty stage, only to disappear as her dream ends. The central character, known simply as the Woman (to be performed by the celebrated Qian Yi), sings in the Chinese kunqu style that stretches back 600 years and involves dance and stylized movement. Four men, ranging from bass-baritone to countertenor, perform in the traditional western operatic style.

Composer Huang Ruo mixes East, West in 'Paradise Interrupted.' (Photo provided by Huang Ruo)
Composer Huang Ruo mixes East, West in ‘Paradise Interrupted.’
(Photo provided by Huang Ruo)

Ruo scored the opera for a chamber orchestra that includes both Eastern and Western instruments. Eastern instruments include bamboo flutes, the sheng (the Chinese mouth organ), and pipa (or Chinese lute).

“I took inspiration from the East, but when I write I don’t think, here is the East, here is the West,” said Ruo, now based in New York. “I tried to create something organic. So while I took inspiration from both cultures, whatever came out emerged organically from my past, my experience.”

The stage design by director Jennifer Wen Ma looms large in the production. In fact, the piece is being dubbed by the Festival as  an “installation opera.” Ma, well-known for her work on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, creates a multimedia installation that appears and disappears at the command of the Woman’s singing. A black garden made from hundreds of laser-cut paper sheets will be lengthened or shortened to underscore the dreamlike drama unfolding.

“Jennifer Wen Ma had the concept, but we all contributed when we came to the project,” Ruo said. “We all participated in shaping the story. It involved much teamwork.”

Ruo wrote the libretto along with Ma, Yi, and Ji Chao, the last of whom works in traditional Chinese opera in Beijing. Parts of the libretto are in a made-up language, Ruo said. Other portions, particularly those by Chao, consist of an archaic Chinese language that Ruo compares to Shakespeare.

“Using a style that is several hundred years old makes it new in a sense,” Ruo said. “The language is so abstract. All the words mean two sentences. It’s very concise and there’s great beauty in the words.”

Paradise Interrupted, sung in Mandarin with English supertitles, will be performed in Charleston’s Memminger Auditorium on May 22, 24, 27, 29, and 31. See details here.


By sharp contrast, the other opera scheduled for this year’s Spoleto Festival, Cavalli’s Veremonda, was first performed in Naples and Venice around 1652 and hasn’t been heard since.

Stefano Vizioli, director of Cavalli's 'Veremonda' (Photo provided)
Stefano Vizioli, director of Cavalli’s ‘Veremonda.’
(Photo provided)

Conductor Aaron Carpenè has been working almost two years preparing the vocal and orchestra score for the opera. Full title: Veremonda, l’Amazzone di Aragona (Veremonda, the Amazon of Aragona).

“I really feel like a pregnant woman who’s about to give birth,” Carpenè said with a laugh, speaking on the phone from Charleston. “It has been gestating for a long time.”

Director Stefano Vizioli compared reviving a 17th-century opera to being a familiar film hero.

“We were like Indiana Jones, searching for hidden treasure,” Vizioli said.

The opera, which centers on love amid Spanish and Moorish wars, will feature Vivica Genaux, a coloratura mezzo-soprano much celebrated for her recordings of baroque opera. The cast also includes the Italian countertenor Raffaele Pe. Members of the early-music ensemble New York Baroque Incorporated will be led by Carpenè.

At the heart of the opera is the siege of the Moorish fort on the Rock of Gibraltar by the Spanish King and Queen, Alfonso and Veremonda. “It’s a perfect cocktail of passion and tragedy, but also comedy,” said Vizioli.

Carpenè said the opera’s themes — Christian and Muslim conflict, among others — are far more relevant to today’s audience than those of many later romantic operas.

Cavalli (1602-1676) was a prominent composer whose works are not often heard, although his La Calisto and Giasone are occasionally revived.

Countertenor Raffaele Pe is featured in Cavalli's 'Veremonda' (Photo courtesy of Raffaele Pe)
Countertenor Raffaele Pe is featured in Cavalli’s ‘Veremonda.’
(Photo courtesy of Raffaele Pe)

Early-music aficionados who are familiar with the florid da capo arias of Handel and Vivaldi may be surprised by Veremonda. Whereas Vivaldi wrote long ornate arias connected by minimal recitative, the earlier Cavalli favored shorter arias and long passages of recitative — the recitar cantando style, which means to act in singing.

“The recitatives are finely crafted declamatory musical pieces,” Carpenè said. “The singer is very much an actor. You get the idea that Cavalli has studied how an actor declaims a text and has put it into music.”

Carpenè, an early-music specialist who has lived in Rome for many years, uncovered Cavalli’s autograph score in Venice’s Marciana Library. The binding, he said, was beautiful, but the manuscript was difficult to decipher.

“We’re very lucky today,” he said. “A lot of operas from the 17th century were lost. The manuscripts disappeared. The manuscript of Veremonda is actually in very good condition. But the content is another question. Veremonda is notoriously Cavalli’s messiest manuscript, so trying to prepare a production score for Spoleto was a complex journey. There are four separate handwritings and Cavalli himself has a very untidy handwriting. There are obvious mistakes. On many points, I’m still in doubt as to whether I made the best choice.”

Vivica Genaux sings title role in Cavalli's 'Veremonda.' (Photo by Christian Steiner)
Vivica Genaux sings the title role in Cavalli’s ‘Veremonda.’
(Photo by Christian Steiner)

Carpenè said that preparing a new edition of Veremonda involves some educated guesswork, based on his own deep knowledge of Cavalli’s style. He was faced, for instance, with two slightly different librettos. He worked mainly from a Venice libretto but discovered some tantalizing material in a separate one from Naples.

“At one point we found that the text in the Naples libretto was more interesting, more spicy, more saucy, so we decided to substitute it,” Carpenè said.

Changes to the score will continue right up until the first Spoleto performance — and probably after.  “It’s still a work in progress,” Carpenè said.

In staging Veremonda, Vizioli resists the sort of stylized acting that characterizes some Baroque opera revivals. He opts for realism.

“I’m interested in the line that connects an opera of 400 years ago to our sensibility,” Vizioli said. “The… recitar cantando style…[means] you must make love with the words. I like a physicality with bodies rolling on the floor in a love scene.”

Veremonda, sung in Italian with English supertitles, will be performed in Charleston’s historic Dock Street Theatre on May 23, 26, 30, June 2, and 5. See details here.

Chamber and orchestral music

Spoleto’s 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 Dock Street Theatre throughout the festival. They range widely, featuring music by Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Chopin, Prokofiev, and the contemporary American composer Mark Applebaum.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein returns to the chamber music series.  (Julia Lynn Photography)
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein returns to the chamber music series.
(Julia Lynn Photography)

Among the performers for this year’s chamber music programs are violinists Nuttall, Livia Sohn, and Benjamin Beilman, violinist/violist Daniel Phillips, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

Spoleto’s chamber music series includes not only instrumentalists but the Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan, who will sing cycles by Schumann and Beethoven, and songs and arias by Dowland, Barber, and Faure, among others.

The Westminster Choir, led by Joe Miller, will offer one of the towering works of the choral repertoire, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, on June 3. The choir, known for its polished sound, serves as the resident choral ensemble for the festival and will also be featured in David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion.

John 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’ll conduct performances of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, an ensemble of 90 young professional musicians selected in 10 auditions held across the country.

The Spoleto Festival Orchestra will perform film scores during screenings of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, with a soundtrack by Chaplin himself, and Bill Morrison’s Decasia, with music by Michael Gordon.

The Wells Fargo Jazz series will include performances by such artists as Dianne Reeves, Madeleine Peyroux, Mônica Salmaso, Musica Nuda, Carlos Aguirre, Kate Davis, and Rita Marcotulli & Luciano Biondini.

Charleston's Spoleto Festival offers chamber music twice daily. (Julia Lynn Photography)
Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA offers chamber music twice daily.
(Julia Lynn Photography)

Among the pop-oriented acts will be Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on Memorial Day and the rhythm and blues band St. Paul and the Broken Bones at the June 7 festival finale.

European-style circus always is a popular attraction at Spoleto, particularly with families, and this year’s festival features the debut of Australia’s Casus Circus, bringing its acclaimed show Knee Deep to the event.

The festival will offer return appearances by Shen Wei Dance Arts and the Trisha Brown Dance Company; it also includes flamboyant provocateur Taylor Mac, a familiar presence at the festival known for his blistering wit.

“He’ll perform a concert of popular music, ranging from the 1770’s to the 2000’s,” said Spoleto general director Nigel Redden said.

Dancer Lil Buck will make his Spoleto Festival debut with the world premiere of a work called What Moves You, a collaboration with cellist Ashley Bathgate.

Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra comprises 90 young professionals (Julia Lynn Photography)
Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra comprises 90 young professionals.
(Julia Lynn Photography)

Named the Wall Street Magazine’s Performing Arts Innovator of the Year, Lil Buck (aka Charles Riley) brought international attention to “jookin” — a street dance originating in Memphis — when a video of his improvised performance with Yo-Yo Ma went viral in 2011.

In addition to the main festival, the city-run Piccolo Spoleto offers scores of other arts attractions as well.

Canada’s 2b theater company will make its festival debut with the play When It Rains, an exploration of the Book of Job.

Italy’s famed Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company returns to the festival with another classic tale, Sleeping Beauty, described by the New York Times as “simply a gorgeous and glorious spectacle.”

Featuring 165 meticulously handcrafted marionettes, hand-painted scenery, and intricate costumes, the story is told in English and enhanced by excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet score. A special children’s ticket price will be offered for the performances.

Tickets for the Spoleto Festival may be purchased online at spoletousa.org by phone at 843-579-3100.

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for the Greenville (S.C.) News and a board member of the Music Critics Association of North America. He may be reached at phyde@greenvillenews.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

Westminster Choir, Spoleto Festival USA resident choral ensemble, offers Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion'  (Julia Lynn Photography)
Westminster Choir, Spoleto Festival USA resident choral ensemble, offers Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’
(Julia Lynn Photography)