`Elektra' Highlights Spoleto USA

With Menotti firmly at the helm, annual festival sparkles with music, theater, and art

EACH year between the rains of spring and the humid heat of summer, a spell falls over Charleston, S.C., a moment when music fills the air, hibiscus and gardenias burst into bloom, and new pieces of sculpture appear in this charming city's much-celebrated parks and gardens. It's Spoleto time.

Spoleto is an explosion of dance and opera, chamber and choral music, drama, jazz and the visual arts, founded by the Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti in this southern city 16 years ago. The celebration is modeled after the Festival of Two Worlds that Mr. Menotti created in 1958 in the little Umbrian hilltop town of Spoleto in Italy some 80 miles from Rome.

This year's Spoleto Festival USA, which opened May 21 with a performance by Les Ballets de Montecarlo, will include some 102 events before it closes on June 7 with a gala finale featuring both the Duke Ellington orchestra and spectacular fireworks. International in scope, this year it includes a vast exhibit by the contemporary Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj; a dramatic work by the Irish playwright Tom Murphy; concerts of chamber music with instrumentalists from as far afield as Korea, China, Japan, France , and Italy; the Compagnie Philippe Genty from France, which mixes illusion with puppetry; and Joseph Flummerfelt's Westminster Choir from New Jersey, arguably the finest choral group in the United States. Tortuous tale

A taut, tense production of Richard Strauss's expressionistic opera "Elektra" has been the highlight of the festival. The grisly text - inspired by Greek mythology - was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the first of many highly successful collaborations between him and Strauss. In this tortured tale, Elektra vows revenge against her mother, Queen Klytemnestra, for the murder of her father, Agamemnon. When Elektra incorrectly receives the news that her brother Orestes is dead and thus unable to kill Klyt emnestra and her new love, Aegistheus, Elektra unsuccessfully tries to enlist the assistance of her hedonistic sister, Chrysothemis. The reappearance of Orestes, and his slaying of the Queen and Aegistheus which follows, bring Elektra to the peak of her exaltation; she then falls motionless on the ground. Revenge has been achieved.

Spiros Argiris, music director of both the US and Italian Spoleto festivals, conducted this intricate, complex score masterfully. He brought out the complex textures that venture into polytonality and atonality, finally resolving at the climax into the lush, rich harmonies so characteristic of Strauss in his most romantic moments. Director Gunter Krmer's concept was a key element in the success of this production: Though he elected to use a stylized approach (the stage set was made up of abstract sy mbols: a wheelchair and Venetian blinds, rails, and the hanging carcass of a horse), every gesture and movement was sensitively evolved either from von Hofmannsthal's text or Strauss's music.

The three principal female roles were sung by sopranos of unusual ability and musicality. Having just made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Kundry in "Parsifal" following her appearance at the Wagner shrine in Bayreuth in both "Die Walkure" and "Gotterdmmerung," Deborah Polaski, a retired minister's daughter from Greensburg, Ind., (a fact of which she is justly proud) revealed a voice of enormous power and depth, able to shade lines with minute nuances that revealed the agony and pathos of the text.

The Greek soprano Katerina Ikonomu, who came to international notice in the Paris Opera production of Strauss's "Salome," and who went on to make her Metropolitan Opera debut in the same role, sang Chrysothemis with an energy and a beauty of tone not always associated with that role.

As for Klytemnestra, Viennese mezzo-soprano Helga Dernesch was a queen at once regal and ravaged, her voice luxuriant and resonant in this demanding part.

The production of Gaetano Donizetti's opera, "Il duca d'Alba" (The Duke of Alba) was a glimpse into operatic history. Though commissioned by the Paris Opera to write this work to a text of Eugene Scribe in 1839, Donizetti was forced by the political upheavals at the opera house to abandon the project when he was about two-thirds of the way through it. In 1881, long after the composer's death, the Italian music publisher Giuseppina Lucca purchased the score and "commissioned" three teachers at the Milan C onservatory of Music to complete the opera. "Il duca d'Alba" received its premiere in Rome on March 22, 1882. Original sets discovered

When Menotti first decided to mount it at his Italian Festival of Two Worlds in Italy in 1959 in a production by Visconti, he discovered that the original sets from the 1882 production were still preserved in an Italian warehouse. He immediately purchased them. It was these same impressive sets - unretouched and completely original - which were used for the remounting in Charleston, sets which represented the Grand Place in Brussels, the port in Antwerp, all painted with a realism and forced perspective unknown to stage painters today.

Filippo Sanjust, who had assisted Visconti in the 1959 production, restaged it in Charleston. Conducted brilliantly by Alberto Maria Giuri, who was making his operatic debut, the production included Alan Titus as an impressive, rich-voiced Duke of Alba. Michela Sburlati, as Amelia, revealed through her singing a resonant vocal instrument capable of many colors, a voice with true potential. Cesar Hernandez, a young tenor from Puerto Rico, demonstrated a bright, pleasing voice in the part of Marcel of Brug e, the thwarted lover.

The Spoleto Festival USA has overcome its bitter wranglings of last year, with Menotti remaining firmly in control of artistic decisions.

The celebration offers wonderful discoveries of Menotti's, such as Teatr Ekspresji from Poland, an ensemble whose language is made up of elements from pantomime, ballet, drama, and the dynamism of sport exercises. Their "Zun" proved to be a minimalist form of dance with plotless patterns repeated over and over again, slowly modified, occasionally accelerated in tempo. According to choreographer Wojciech Misiuro, it was an attempt "to portray the two indispensable elements of human existence - Nature and Culture - through the prism of senses, feelings, and passions."

Yes, Spoleto is alive and well, an affirmation of Menotti's skill in bringing virtually unknown young artists and exciting new works to the attention of an enthusiastic public.

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