Charleston, S.C. — THE Spoleto Festival USA, which runs through June 5, prides itself on presenting unusual repertoire in all areas of its musical and theatrical activity. For its 12th season, Spoleto has gone out on a limb in its operatic fare by presenting two utterly neglected works - Antonin Dvorak's ``Rusalka'' and Carl Heinrich Graun's ``Montezuma.'' In each case, the neglect is mystifying. Dvorak's mythical opera has been unfairly (at least to these ears) stereotyped as a boring pastiche of folk tunes and weak dramaturgy. Graun's opera, or at least what we heard of it, is not kissed with startling originality, but is blessed with a sturdy craftsmanship that allows voices to show off with expressivity and high virtuosics.
``Rusalka'' was, happily, performed without cuts - an unusual event in most live situations - and in Czechoslovak, with English supertitles. It tells of a tortured water sprite who becomes mortal for love of a Prince. She must remain mute as a mortal, and when the Prince finally proves unfaithful - as she knows from the beginning he must - she is doomed to become a Willi and lure him to his death.
This opera can be approached from the relatively cheerful standpoint of the composer's Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Here, conductor Spiros Argiris came to the music by way of the dark, tortuous path of the Seventh Symphony, wherein even the resolution is dark and ominous. The directors (and costume designers), Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, make it clear that Rusalka is going to suffer greatly for her desire to be mortal and know love.
Where some directors and designers attempt to put us in her lake home, here she is given a symbolic locale, suggested by billowing sheets of dark parachute cloth. Rusalka sings her celebrated ``Song to the Moon'' as a disembodied torso; at the moment when she finally severs her watery ties, she struggles violently. In the second act, she is clearly an outsider, and is cruelly mocked by the Prince's social set.
The third act takes place on top of the frozen lake, the landscape cut by a macabre, gnarled, fallen tree. Rusalka is now a pitiful ashen-haired wraith (as designated in the libretto), whose every step is agony. In this production, even the beautiful Woodsprite music is tinged with gloom. When the repentant Prince finally accepts the fatal kiss that is, in fact, his redemption, snow begins to fall, and Rusalka bids her forgiving farewell and commences an eternity of damnation as a Willi.
Not all these ideas come to life as vividly as they should. The second-act courtiers' mocking is startlingly amateurish in execution; the Prince's redemption, so explicit in the music, has little on-stage correlation. But so many other moments are powerfully rendered, and I will not soon forget the final image of the desolate Rusalka preparing to meet her eternal doom on that cruel, icy landscape.
Maestro Argiris feels the dark element in the score with particular keenness, and yet he allows himself - and his orchestra - to be swept away by the impassioned lyricism of so much of the score. Vocally, the cast was strong, even down to the smaller parts, including Adolfo Llorca's outstanding Hunter and Gamekeeper.
Maria Spacagna lacks the thrustful, ample top needed for the title role, and yet she is a shrewd singer, suggesting what is not hers to command, and always sensitively in tune to the emotional core of the music. Mignon Dunn turns in one of her finest performances in recent memory as the witch Jezibaba, and Thomas Booth has the needed ringing tenor voice for the Prince, as well as the musical sensitivity. Wassili Janulako's Watergnome is a stalwart presence. As the Foreign Princess, Ealynn Voss reveals a soprano of startling size and impact, though as yet imperfectly used.
I quite disliked the production of ``Montezuma.'' Director Winfried Bauernfeind's pretentious, arty impositions on the plot line (we actually have the scenario-writer, Frederick the Great, wandering in and out of the action) distracted at all times from the excellent musicmaking, and from the engaging music.
This renowned tyrant created this story as an explanation to his beloved master Voltaire as to why he had to defend the French borders. Paradoxically, he used Cort'es's (Graun's spelling) decimation of Montezuma and his Aztec empire as the simile, siding more with the Aztec chief than one might have expected. Graun, Frederick's court composer, turned the text into a richly Handelian opera seria that is a handsome showcase for good singers.
Top honors go to Christine Weidinger as Eupaforice - able to ride any orchestral climax and still manage high floridity with grace and facility. The Montezuma, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Papadjiakou, and the Cort'es,, baritone Dirk Sagem"uller, were making US debuts. Hers was clearly an impressive, if raw, talent.
Emily Manhart sang Tezeuco's music impressively, and Penelope Lusi proved a spirited, engaging Erissena.
The excellent Rantos Collegium Orchestra was under the animated direction of Oliver Gilmour. In the intimate surroundings of the Dock Street Theater, Charleston's particular jewel, the musical contributions were constant condemnation of the visual.
``Rusalka'' will be given its fourth and final performance this Friday at 8 p.m. in the Galliard Municipal Auditorium; ``Montezuma'' has its final performance Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the Dock Street Theater.
First of two articles on the Spoleto Festival USA.