Vast, inventive Spoleto is arts feast

Ada. Dark. Lofty. Proud. Daughter of the King of Ethiopia. This is not the Ada of the Metropolitan Opera, nor the principal character in the Disney Broadway musical "Aida." This is an Ada in miniature - approximately three feet tall - surrounded by a wee cast of Egyptian royalty, Moorish dancers, and high priests. The cast, all marionettes, is from the Compagnia Carlo Colla e Figli from Italy, which is one of the delightful highlights of the huge arts festival going on in Charleston, S.C., right now.

Spoleto Festival USA 2000 (through June 11) is arguably the most innovative arts festival in America, whose vast program offers some 131 events.

In addition to the Colla Marionettes, major attractions this year include productions of two rarely performed operas, "Luisa Miller" and "Iphignie en Tauride

Spoleto 2000 opened May 26 with a stark new production of Giuseppe Verdi's Luisa Miller. The action is set in an 18th-century Tyrolean village. The story revolves around Luisa, a commoner, and Rodolfo, son of Count Walter, who have fallen in love against the will of their parents. Following a series of deceptions and misunderstandings, the opera ends with Luisa and Rodolfo - poisoned - dying at the feet of their respective fathers.

In "Luisa Miller," directed by Christopher Alden, the action is performed on a unit set of stark green wood slats. Visual variation is created by dramatic changes in lighting, and by the chorus, which forms a variety of picture-like friezes.

The orchestra and musical forces, led with incredible precision and drive by Yves Abel, are the height of Verdian style. The cast of protagonists is composed of phenomenal artists, exquisitely well-trained singers who breathe life into the characters. Leading the cast is soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, whose powerful middle-and-lower voice is as impressive as her shimmering metallic top. She cloaks Luisa with haunting beauty.

Only a few blocks away from the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, site of "Luisa Miller," is Christoph Gluck's Iphignie en Tauride, a harmonious blend of musical genius and production creativity.

Conductor Steven Sloane's reading is brisk and precise, yet appropriately restrained. The production, led by co-directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, reflects the clean and uncluttered nature of Gluck's stately score in an abstract, modern setting.

The story, inspired by Euripides, takes place in Scythia (today's southern Russia), where Iphignie lives as a priestess of the goddess Diane. When the opera opens, the Scythian ruler Thoas has heard an oracle predict his death, so he orders Iphignie to sacrifice an unknown Greek who has been cast ashore.

At the moment of the sacrifice, Iphignie recognizes the stranger as her brother, Oreste. Just in time, Pylade, Oreste's childhood friend, enters with a band of Greeks. They kill Thoas, Diane descends from the heavens to absolve Oreste of his earlier crimes, and all join in a chorus of praise.

High praise goes to the entire cast of singing actors for the opening-night performance. Andrea Trebnik exquisitely portrayed a tormented Iphignie, well matched by the fire and power of Andrew Schroeder in the role of Oreste.

According to ancient Chinese legend, Night and Day were created through the ill-fated love between a heavenly being and a mortal. The story of The Silver River, Spoleto's new music-theater masterpiece, is based on this 5,000-year-old legend. Conceived and produced for Spoleto by director Ong Keng Sen, composer/conductor Bright Sheng, and librettist David Henry Hwang, "The Silver River" is a fable that bends time and space, blending traditions from Chinese culture with conventions from opera, theater, and dance of the West.

The imaginative set consists of a 20-foot waterfall upstage center, which cascades downward between two black raked platforms divided in the center to form a trough. The river trickles over a bed of shimmering, blue-lighted Mylar, and ends in a pool of sparkling, clear water.

The fantastic costumes, designed by Anita Yavich and inspired by ancient Chinese apparel, provide a colorful spectacle. It is a tale of love: a triangle between the Goddess Weaver (Muna Tseng), a silent role which blends Chinese and modern dance; the Golden Buffalo (Karen Kandel), a part entirely recited; and the Cowherd they both love (Michael Chioldi), a role sung in traditional operatic style.

"The Silver River" is a powerful theatrical event not to be missed.

*Spoleto Festival USA 2000 continues through June 11. For more information, log onto the Web at www.spoletousa.org or call toll free (877) 386-7765.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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