Charleston, S.C. — What is most intriguing about the fascinating and justly renowned Spoleto Festival here is the variety of offerings crammed into its three weeks. There is chamber music, opera, operetta, choral and orchestra concerts, dance and theater. (The stellar theatrical offering -- Arthur Miller's "The American Clock" -- has already been discussed in these pages.)
The festival officially opened -- after a day of ceremonies and press conferences -- with Bellini's "La Sonnambula" at the Galliard Auditorium. While contemplating the figures disclosed earlier in the day (that Spoleto brings an immediate $20 million to the town every year, and an additional $80 million in secondary effects), one settled back for this epitome of the bel canto art form.
"Sonnambula" is not blessed with the most intelligent of plots, but it is suffused with limpied, exquisite melodies -- all showcases for a singer's purity of tone, elegance of long line, and subtlety of phrasing to further an emotional direction. Visually, this "Sonnambula" is quite sumptuous, with a very special, soft, slightly out-of-focus look (achieved with scrims that remain down for the entire show). The costumes have a 19th- century ballet look. to The sets are shallow, a bit cramped (which is actually something of an asset, as it keeps the action minimal and intimate), and are framed in a huge circle on the scrim, as if one were viewing it through a ring of flowers.
There is a flaw in the visual aspect of Pier Luigi Samaritani's production. The men's costumes were designed for very svelte performers (ballet dancers?), not for the ample American frames of all but a few choristers and singers.
Gianna Rolandi was singing her first Bellini role ever, and needed more help than conductor Guido Ajmone-Marsan gave her in gaining some insight into what makes Bellini work. For if the tender emotion of the words is to get across, it must be by means of limpidity and emotional candor. Miss Rolandi can muster the former some of the time, but the latter evades her as yet. Nonetheless, her Amina revealed more promise than one expected -- a bit more warmth, more care at not allowing the large voice to turn metallic up top. And she tossed off the fiendish finale, "Ah non giunge," with such hair-raising accuracy and aplomb that were she really to get the rest of the role together (and the tradition she hopes to make her career in), she may turn into a very strong artist indeed.
Her Elvino was Jon Garrison, a tenor of impressive looks (fitting those costumes especially well), but with a voice that simply does not cope with the high-lying line with much elegance or tonal appeal. David Cumberland has a good bass voice which he uses strongly as Rodolfo, and James Dietsch was a personable Alessio.
It fell on Sunny Joy Langton to give a real sense of what Bellini can offer. She tossed off Lisa's coloratura with effortless ease, shimmering tone, and a real sense of characterization as found in the music. In all her moments, which are not that many, she shone impressively.
It is said that Gian-Carlo Menotti, artistic director of the cast, actually directed the production (Mr. Samaritani retained his credit), and the interactions were fine, but the chorus movements proved quite sloppy. Ajmone- Marsan's conducting was always vital, but not always optimally supple and truly attentive to nuance as it must be in this music.
The able chorus was culled from the Westminster Choir, which also gave a concert under music director Joseph Flummerfeldt. The focal point of the evening was the Schubert Mass No. 5 in E flat (D.950), a handsome piece, full of those endless and inventive melodies that Schubert created with such richness. If it is not the most ardent specimen of devotional music, its felicities are numerous. The soloists, in the small roles assigned to them by the composer, included a stressful Niel Roosenshein, Miss Langton, Jane Shaulis, Joseph McKee and Mr. Garrison.
The Spoleto Festival Orchestra played well for Flummerfeldt. He allows the orchestra to play with clarity and, though his work is not high on trenchant inspiration, neither is it bland or dull.
Of the rest of the program -- devotional pieces by Verdi, Bruckner, and Mendelssohn, and a fine performance of the "liebeslieder Waltzer" of Johannes Brahms. The choir is a particularly impressive group in its tonal blend, and in the attention to detail and diction. Flummerfeldt is a very sturdy, alert musician, and he served up a most satisfying evening.
The Spoleto Festival Orchestra, incidentally, is composed of conservatory students from around the country, and it plays like a fine symphonic ensemble, be it for Bellini or Schubert, or any of the other assignments members of the orchestra executed in the course of the festival. Would, however, that a more imaginative garb than black turtle-neck shirts and trousers were assigned to both orchestra and chorus, for when the soloists emerge in tails the contrast is , at best, ludicrous. Dance
Dance is an important part of Spoleto, and the first dance event of the festival took place in the tree-covered Cistern of the University of Charleston campus -- not an ideal place, really, because the trees limit sightlines, but unique when under a gorgeous Charleston starlit, breeze-swept sky. The very impressive Joyce Trisler Dance Company presented the late choreographer's re-creation of Denishawn works, as well as her "Four Against the Gods" which memorializes Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, and Isadora Duncan. And finally, Miss Trisler's version of Hindemith's "Four Temperaments."
In it all, the mark of a choreographer who really knew the music and the distinct, overt, and discreet differences within that music (especially in the Hindemith), and a company that danced with tremendous commitment, precision, and poetry.
It is just the sort of event that symbolizes the quality and the interesting diversity that makes Charleston one of the most fascinating places to be during Spoleto Festival time.