World of culture under the magnolias. Charleston, S.C., plays an elegant host to star-studded Spoleto Festival
The curtain has risen on the eighth season of Spoleto, U.S.A., the American photocopy of the intercontinental cultural exchange that Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti started in Italy 25 years ago. Seventeen days of classical music, theater, dance, opera, jazz, and visual arts are sizzling through June 10 amid this city's antebellum houses, churches, and gardens.Skip to next paragraph
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The Italian version began in the poor and sleepy town of Spoleto, Italy, because founder Menotti wanted to take artists ''where they were needed'' to become ''the bread and butter of a community, not just the after-dinner mint.'' The so-called ''Festival of Two Worlds'' quickly became world renowned for its depth, variety, and opportunity for young artists.
For similar reasons, Menotti - a Pulitzer Prize-winner and the most-produced living operatic composer (best known for ''Amahl and the Night Visitors'') - transported an American version here in 1977. He chose Charleston because of its deserving, off-the-beaten-track heritage and a setting as rich with history, art , and beauty as the performances that would occur in its theaters, auditoriums, courtyards, and parks.
The current festival is studded with enough world-class talent to keep it on the road to international status on par with its prototype. Highlights this year include Menotti's own opera, ''Juana La Loca,'' Franz Lehar's ''The Merry Widow, '' Pinchas Zukerman and his Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and an American premiere of Australian playwright David Williamson's ''The Perfectionist.'' Also of note are Strauss's opera ''Ariadne auf Naxos,'' the Emerson String Quartet, Baroque cellist Anner Bylsma, and ''Daniel and the Lions'' performed by the New York Ensemble for Early Music.
There were standing-room-only crowds for many of the first weekend's offerings, begun with much fanfare amid speeches, parades, and soaring balloons. But the only real hint of a festival-in-progress outside festival sites are the multicolored banners flapping from streetlights. One million in ticket sales have been announced, and the town will net about $42 million in extra business. But when performance exits disgorge their enormous audiences, they seem to disappear among the magnolias and cobblestones.
It is this peculiar flavor of the Charleston/Spoleto marriage that led an editorialist to comment: ''The combination of the daring child, always dynamic, and the old lady of quiet charm who rarely changes . . . has produced an ideal mating.''
Among the ongoing offerings:
* ''The Merry Widow'': The opening performance of the festival was everything it one could hope for it - upbeat and crowd-pleasing, with first-rate costumes, glittering music, luxurious sets, and excellent cast. Singers and orchestra overcame Gaillard Civic Auditorium's notoriety as a horror of acoustics to receive rousing ovations.
Mary Jane Johnson, winner of the first Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition, projected the Merry Widow with flair and dazzle - both as actress and singer. With the strongest and most eloquent voice of the evening, her singing of the familiar aria ''Vilia'' earned her the only sustained mid-act applause.