An opera hit at Spoleto

The Spoleto Festival, USA, has settled into Charleston very comfortably. There is no longer the sense of pioneering of that first season -- no more the utter chaos of late curtains, endless intermissions, and closed restaurants. The performance level is surprisingly high all around. Only the opera "Sonnambula" proved disappointing, but it was hardly unprofessional. And most of the other things were on a level one does not often encounter even in the major urban centers of this country.

It may well be this will become the place to be, annually, at the end of May and beginning of June, for those interested in young talent performing new and old classics. For Spoleto Charleston is perhaps the most diverse, and increasingly the most interesting festival in this country today.

Charleston itself is one of the great attractions of Spoleto, because it is such an attractive, unrushed town.

More specifically, the Dock St. Theater is one of the jewels of America -- a reproduction of what is perhaps the oldest theater in the country, seating around 500 in elegant wooden surroundings. No one has to strain to hear, no microphones are needed (an interestingly rare occurence in this over-amplified age), and no one is so far from the stage as to lose intimacy.

The Dock St. was also the site of the new Arthur Miller play, as well as two one-act French operettas -- Offenbach's "Monsieur Choufleuri" and Bizet's "Le Docteur Miracle." Since the first festival, a pit has been put into the Dock St. (not without controversy, but the results speak vividly for themselves). Now small operas are possible in this intimate setting. And when the offering is so perfectly wrought a production as was Giulio Chazalettes' of "Monsieur Choufleuri," then suddenly a festival has a runaway hit. It is the sort of 58 minutes one wishes were at least committed to film, or sent in toto to be seen all over the country.

On Ulisse Santicchi's red-walled Victorian living room set unfolds the tale of Monsieur Choufleuri a middle-class socially ambitious music-hater who has invited Rubini, Tambourini, and Sontag -- the three great opera singers of the day -- to his salon to score a needed cultural coup. They beg off, and Choufleuri must resort to using his daughter, her lover Babylas, and himself as the soprano, tenor, and bass.

Offenbach and "St. Remy," the librettist, have a field day spoofing middle-class attitudes and postures, and the entire gamut of Italian bel canto school. During the music salon scene, the show reaches a delirious pinnacle of scathing wit and uproarious slapstick.

Daughter Ernestine Susan Peterson dazzles with her presence and her comic timing, though the soprano voice is not rich, and tends to be effortful up top. Bruce Reed, as Babylas, plays a lovable buffoon and reveals a strong tenor, forcefully yet tastefully used. Francois Loup as Choufleuri is a performer in the grand old buffo tradition, but with a decidedly Gallic flavor. Jonathan Green, as the servant Petermann, made the most of his moments, and Diane Curry all but stole the show as the dowager Madame Blandard, the epitome of everything one loves to hate about pretentious social pillars.

The Westminster Choir filled the choral parts, the Spoleto Festival Orchestra played brilliantly under the direction of Jean-Pierre Marty, whose timing is faultless, whose sense of theater is superb, and whose ability to follow, support, and challenge his singers, is rare indeed.

"Le Docteur Miracle" is less funny an experience, but no less well performed by the above cast, minus Mr. Green. The set is essentially the same, the direction equally superb -- everyone plays strongly, but not broadly in that comic style that could become overwrought so easily -- and Marty's conducting is a marvel of its kind. In the Dock St., it was an enchanting hour, even if not quite up to the delirium of "Choufleuri."

The Garden Theater was the site of a brilliant production of Conrad Susa's "Transformations." The text is by the late Anne Sexton. Susa describes his work as an entertainment, scored for a small handful of instrumentalists, and eight singers. Sexton's text transforms tales from the Brothers Grimm into her own modern, slick fantasies that echo strongly her vivid neuroses. Susa consistently matches the mood of the text with an undercurrent of musical patter -- be it in the voices or in the instruments.

On stage, director David Alden has chosen to take the setting indicated by Susa, and put Anne Sexton herself on stage -- as played masterfully by soprano Katheryn Bouleyn -- who acts as a fragmented narrator, interrupting, interjecting, standing apart, or becoming a part of the action. Alden keeps the momentum flowing, keeps Sexton's presence around, even when Miss Bouleyn is offstage. His work is consistently inventive, clever, and keeps the Susa moving along in a compelling, fascinating, engrossing manner.

Also in the expert cast, were Karen Hunt, Jane Shaulis, George Shirley (how good to see him back on a stage again), John Lankston, James Schwisow (a fine voice wedded to a forceful varsity-good-looks stage presence), Jake Gardner, and Joseph McKee. At the helm of things musical, Andrew Meltzer was in perfect control. Donald Eastman designed the striking sets, Dona Granata and Walter Pickette, the costumes, and Patricia Collins the complex lighting.

The Garden is also a smallish theater, and the Footlight Players Workshop is a very informal place. There Spoleto artistic director Gian Carlo Menotti's "Chip and His Dog" had its US premiere early on in the festival. "Chip" is a children's opera, written to be performed exclusively by children, and here, in this town, South Carolina was the source of the young talent. "Chip" lasts 28 minutes and deals with Chip (named after Menotti's adopted son), who is starving , as is his dog. Enter aides to the princess, who want the dog to make the princess laugh. They coerce him into selling, to disastrous results, for the girl does not laugh, until Chip enters, then she laughs and falls in love.

Simple enough, with music to match which -- a few odd moments aside -- poses no problems for the children, and offers a touching tale that everyone on stage, and most of the children in the audience, appeared to find altogether engrossing.

The melodies are lovely, the Pasquale Grossi set was attractive, as were the Dona Granata costumes. How nice to have a work that does not condescend to children, from the pen that also brought forth "Amahi and the Night Visitors."

The Dock St. Theater is the ideal hall for chamber music, and the Spoleto Chamber Music series has been consistently one of the most popular features of the festival. This year, unlike the first season, they repeated the same programs three times, rather than offer a new program every day. It is kinder to the players, and actually to the audience, for there is more time for the rehearsal of each program.

The ensemble for the second program included Daniel Phillips and Ani Kavafian on the violin, Scott Nickrenz (a co-director with his flutist wife Paula Robison) violist, and Robert Sylvester, cello. The quartet was joined by Kenneth Cooper for a reduced version of the Bach First Brandenburg concerto, uneven because of the lack of winds and because Cooper had some troubles here.

Then they were joined by Stephanie Brown for the Dvorak Piano Quintet Op. 81 -- a perfect specimen of the sort of exciting chamber playing that gets a day at the festival off to such a bracing start.

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