Energized Spoleto USA Runs Brash Gamut From Barber To Balloon Pops

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Spoleto USA
A scene from the Spoleto Festival USA production of ‘Vanessa,’ with Zoie Reams, right, as Erika (Photo by William Struhs)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — It’s been a tumultuous year for Mena Mark Hanna in his second season as general manager at Spoleto USA. Chamber music director Geoff Nuttall, the festival’s most recognizable personality — and the charismatic violinist who convinced Hanna to come aboard at Spoleto — died in mid-October at the age of 56 while undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. Given all his antics and flamboyance, Nuttall never seemed to be that old.

Then as all the pieces of Spoleto 2023 were falling into place, including the memorial concert for Nuttall, last year’s centerpiece, the world premiere of Omar, won the Pulitzer Prize for co-composers Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels. That opera, rooted in the festival’s Charleston home, would stand as the signature achievement of Nigel Redden, Hanna’s predecessor. Redden handed over final alterations and trimmings to the new general manager, who piloted the grand project into port.

So this year’s festival (May 26-June 11) will likely be remembered as Hanna’s first true lineup, though Scottish Ballet, mandolin sensation Chris Thile, and iconic jazz artist Abdullah Ibrahim were the last holdovers from the 2020 Spoleto event that never happened. Yet without a replacement for Nuttall, a key member of Hanna’s hiring committee as well as an engaging host and performer, there’s a feeling that the festival remains in flux.

Spoleto USA
Nicole Heaston as Vanessa and Edward Graves as Anton in Barber’s opera at the Spoleto Festival USA (Photo by William Struhs)

When I spoke to Hanna a week before the 2023 Spoleto began, he wavered between declaring he was in no hurry to replace Nuttall and assuring me that considering his successor was definitely on his to-do list during the festival and in the summer ahead.

It is evident that sustaining the momentum for opera is an urgent priority for Hanna. Programming Samuel Barber’s Vanessa was certainly a major statement, since its strong libretto was written by Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti, and for 2024 the festival is commissioning a new opera. Announced as the curtain was rising for the final performance of Vanessa, the new piece, Ruinous Gods by composer Layale Chaker and librettist Lisa Schlesinger, is ballyhooed as “another bold project with powerful themes” in the mold of Omar. Oper Wuppertal and Nederlandse Reisopera will be co-commissioners and co-producers of the new chamber opera.

Menotti, who died in 2007, last was involved at Spoleto in 1993, when he staged one of his weakest works, The Singing Child. True, there was a revival of Menotti’s most heralded opera, The Medium, in 2011, but that production has come to seem like an obligatory celebration of the composer’s 100th birthday. Twelve years later, Vanessa feels like a wholehearted embrace: bolder and more contemporary with Rodula Gaitanou’s daring stage direction, more searching with Timothy Myers wielding the baton.

Gaitanou’s vision of Vanessa was first presented in 2016, but post-pandemic, the loneliness and isolation of its main character resonated more keenly, the effect enhanced because her icy vigil is self-imposed. The entire household seems to be in suspended animation: The Old Baroness mother perpetually painting at her easel, daughter Vanessa faithfully awaiting her former lover’s return after 20 years, and Vanessa’s niece Erika as much on auto-pilot as the maids and butlers.

All the many paintings and mirrors on the walls are covered, adding to the surreal atmosphere. It’s as if Vanessa were protecting herself from a raging plague, or as if this were a summer home about to be abandoned until next year. The futile circularity of the Baroness painting pictures that will be covered as soon as they are hung on the wall subtly prefigures what will happen when Vanessa’s beloved Anton arrives.

As Hanna had promised, the cast was a killer. Nicole Heaston brought a neurotic hauteur to Vanessa, a steely cold soprano in her rendering of the tense “Do not utter a word” aria that weirdly echoed Rosalind Plowright’s iciness as the Baroness, a role that the English mezzo-soprano originated at the Wexford Festival premiere of this production. Compared to the stony and unwavering Plowright, Heaston’s Vanessa proved to be vulnerable, capricious, malleable, and oblivious in a quietly disturbing way.

Chamber music is a vital part of the programming at the Spoleto Festival USA. (Photo by William Struhs)

If Heaston personified the creepiness and supernatural tinge of Menotti operas, mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams as Erika was more attuned to Barber’s sad and wistful Romanticism. More emotion poured out of her in “Must the winter come so soon” than on any of the full-length recordings this side of the original live recording conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos in 1958. Heaston ably gets across to us that her attraction to the second-generation Anton is a rekindling of her youthful ardor, but Reams shows us that Erika’s love for Anton is a first flowering, with more hormonal heat and fire.

Yet Erika never wears her heart on her sleeve. Perhaps because of her more precarious finances, there’s a secretive and withdrawn aspect to Reams’ performance that marks her as a member of the family. So self-denying and self-destructive are they all that it becomes richly ambiguous whether tenor Edward Graves as young Anton is a ruthless fortune hunter or an idealistic romantic. It was rather wonderful when Graves engaged Heaston in the slowly cresting “Love has a bitter core” duet, how Anton and Vanessa could be seen triggering spontaneous passion in each other.

The denouement was a walloping “To leave, to break, to find, to keep” quintet with baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, a welcome presence as The Old Doctor, completing the fugal fabric. It all sounded so present and powerful at the Gaillard Center, the singing perfectly balanced with Myers’ ardent work in the pit, while precisely synced, projected supertitles facilitated transmission of Menotti’s text.

The Spoleto Festival Orchestra is featured in many concerts.

For those of us fortunate enough to attend Vanessa and the big orchestral performances of Spoleto 2023 — John Kennedy conducting The Rite of Spring, Mei-Ann Chen navigating the New World Symphony, and Jonathon Heyward reveling in the Symphonie fantastique — the Gaillard and its fine acoustics were arguably the center of the festival. Both the Spoleto Festival Orchestra and the Spoleto Chorus, recruited in nationwide auditions, are superb. And fortunate: They also, individually or collectively, get to perform edgy, outré, and contemporary pieces at other Spoleto venues that you’re unlikely to experience anywhere else.

Chen, the music director of Chicago Sinfonietta, dug into her wide-ranging repertoire to greet us with Florence B. Price’s Ethiopia’s Shadow in America, a three-movement work that likely begins a mile or two away with an Introduction and Allegretto depicting the arrival of enslaved people to the American shore. The brief yet solemn middle movement vividly evoked the famous Largo of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, heard later in the evening, and the concluding Allegro, “His Adaptation,” had the urbane Ellingtonian strut of the Jazz Age.

Delights and Dances, the title work on Chen’s 2013 Cedille CD that gathered three different concertos for string quartet and the Sinfonietta, was a welcome dive into an early Abels work in the wake of his Pulitzer. In Chen’s rendering of the New World, the onset of the trombones in the final movement brought on goosebumps.

The lesser-known Heyward, music director-designate at the Baltimore Symphony, was not to be upstaged — not by Chen, at any rate. A native of Charleston, Heyward received a hearty greeting from the hometown crowd that puzzled the out-of-towners sitting behind me. Heyward began his grand homecoming with the U.S. premiere of Nymphéa, a 2019 work by Doina Rotaru inspired by Boris Vian’s novel, L’écume des jours, with a sprinkling of Duke Ellington’s “Chloe,” the namesake of Vian’s heroine.

What the music evokes, partly through a delicate combination of piano and muted trumpet that grows fearsome and awesome — embroidered by plentiful percussion — is the growth of a huge destructive water lily (nymphéa) inside Chloé. Call it a 19th-century tone poem written with a 21st-century quirkiness, its instrumentation encompassing a rubbed oriental gong, a plucked Steinway, and a stray mallet head that accidentally bounced into the front row of the audience.

The Spoleto Festival USA takes its artistic revelry seriously.

Yet all of this spookiness was instantly upstaged by the next event on the program, which featured the return of another local musician, the excellent pianist Micah McLaurin. With a glittery, androgynous, and otherworldly David Bowie aura, the slender McLaurin strutted onstage to a huge ovation in a blinding fuchsia jumpsuit with a low-cut back and a single silver sleeve. He proceeded to pound out the opening chords of Grieg’s Piano Concerto once the startled crowd had quieted, working the pedals with platform shoes, which had only increased his considerable height and the éclat of his entrance. The outer Allegro movements showed off McLaurin’s strengths better than the middle Adagio. Even there, the soft and loud passages were gorgeously shaped until late in the movement, when his tone grew too harsh for maximum effect. But the latter stages of the final movement were irresistible, crackling with authentic thunder.

Heyward’s rendering of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was a more consistently satisfying account than Chen’s New World, in part because the principals in the featured solos with him outperformed those chosen for the Dvořák.

Not only did Heyward send his principal oboist offstage in the wondrous countryside movement, he also deployed tubular bells to the wings for the closing “Witches’ Sabbath” movement to chilling effect. The drumbeats and sforzandos in that movement and in the preceding “March to the Scaffold” were nothing short of electrifying.

The other Spoleto venues were rich in talent and adventurous spirit. At Dock Street Theatre, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo performed an outrageous hybrid lark, Only an Octave Apart, with cabaret icon Justin Vivian Bond, nary a male outfit in their wardrobes.

St. Matthews Lutheran Church and the Sottile Theatre were both graced with concerts led by director of choral activities Joe Miller. Surprisingly, the Festival Chorus program at the church, Density 40:1, was more secular than the one two blocks south, a precedent-breaking concept from beginning to end. Miller and his 32+8 voices all ascended to the organ loft in order to spread out over us and perform the 40 parts of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium. More surprising, the choir did not perform “Danny Boy” or an encore. Instead, we all sang “Over the Rainbow” together.

A Poet’s Love’ was a resounding triumph for tenor Jamez McCorkle, who played and sang Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe.’

A new venue, the Queen Street Playhouse, was added to the Spoleto portfolio with mixed success. Artistically, A Poet’s Love was a resounding triumph for tenor Jamez McCorkle, powerfully following up his exploits of last season in the title role of Omar by singing Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe while accompanying the entire song cycle himself at the piano. Designer and choreographer Miwa Matreyek made this a completely immersive experience with animated projections, shadow puppetry, and the movement she designed for Jah’Mar Coakley. But the staging was badly bungled. Once McCorkle sat himself behind the Steinway, I never saw more of him than his scalp from my second-row seat.

After a rather bizarre foray at Festival Hall (formerly Memminger Auditorium) for his first Music in Time concert, Kennedy made better use of Queen Street Playhouse for Sanctum, a wild collection of contemporary pieces, concluding with the 2020 work by Courtney Bryan that gave the program its title. That piece was decisively upstaged by Everything Else, a 2016 composition by Sarah Hennies that I will likely never forget. For this novelty, 15 members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra laid aside their instruments and drove the everyday concept of music to new frontiers most of us had never pondered before. One musician sat with a newspaper, turning the pages at leisurely intervals, another put on a jacket and zipped it up, three of the women passed around and munched a bag of chips, and another tapped obsessively on a laptop keyboard while, across the stage, another blew bubbles.

All of this low-volume action – and a multitude of louder acts – continued simultaneously. There were pennywhistles, a kazoo, two guys slapping cards down on a table in a game of war, and balloons blown up, shaped, and worn as comical crowns. Of course, there was the obligatory popping of balloons near a woman who insouciantly demonstrated how many different things can be done with a bottle of water while hardly making a sound.

Kennedy had seated himself with us in the audience so he could join us. Yet every musician onstage seemed to know exactly what to do —when it was time to launch into a new action and when to initiate interactions with other musicians. Anyone who thought about it had to wonder how such a multifarious sea of chaos could be taught, rehearsed, and performed so precisely that the entire ensemble, without a conductor in front of them, stopped at the same instant.

I still can’t decide whether or not I wish to know.