Spoleto Festival USA Turns Up New Talent

Gian Carlo Menotti's new opera, `The Singing Child,' debuts with two 11-year-old boy sopranos in the key roles

ADVENTURESOME programming coupled with the appearance of frequently unknown talent makes the annual Spoleto Festival USA one of the most exciting festivals in the United States.

Highlights of this season include the US premiere of Alexander von Zemlinsky's one-act 1922 opera, "The Birthday of the Infanta"; a performance of Martha Graham's "Maple Leaf Rag" (a dance inspired by her 1990 visit to Charleston, S.C.); and a brand new opera, "The Singing Child," composed by the festival's founder, Gian Carlo Menotti.

Included among the youthful talent have been tremendously gifted performers such as tenor Robert Brubaker, violinist Joshua Bell (discovered in a previous Spoleto festival), and soprano Alessandra Marc.

The 1993 "Festival of Joy" (to use Menotti's phrase) opened Memorial Day weekend, and before its conclusion this Sunday, will have presented 668 artists in 118 events spread across 17 days: performances of 214 different works, including three operas, 18 dances, a play, 67 songs, a film score, 30 pieces of chamber music, 13 choral works, 26 orchestral compositions, and 57 jazz pieces.

In addition to the lively arts, visitors can view 149 drawings and paintings or attend lectures, lecture-demonstrations, and interviews with such personalities as Ginger Rogers and Maestro Menotti himself.

The opening night concert introduced Steven Mercurio as the new music director of both the American and Italian Spoleto festivals. (He is currently principal conductor of the Opera Company of Philadelphia.) The program began appropriately with a bright, brash reading of Charles Ives's "Decoration Day." Then followed a fiery, passionate performance of Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto" by Joshua Bell that twice brought the audience to its feet.

The second half of the evening featured the superb Westminster Choir in a deeply moving rendition of "The Power of Living" from Aaron Copland's opera, "The Tender Land"; and Alessandra Marc, a powerful young soprano, in an aria from Catalani's "La Wally" and the "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde."

A stunning performance of Martha Graham's "Panorama" - with a huge mobile in the style of Alexander Calder fluttering high overhead - introduced 33 dancers from the Martha Graham Ensemble augmented with students from her School for Contemporary Dance, all dressed in flowing, flame-red dresses designed by the late Miss Graham.

The performance of "Maple Leaf Rag" celebrated the International Graham Centennial. It was inspired by a Charleston joggling board - a long plank whose ends are anchored by posts on rockers (an early courting device found on many porches in Charleston). "Maple Leaf Rag" was Graham's last choreographed piece.

Following the appearance of her company at the 1990 Spoleto Festival, Graham requested that a joggling board be sent to her in New York. Around this piece of Charleston memorabilia, she created the lighthearted and whimsical dance to Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." On stage, with Terese Capucilli and Floyd Flynn as its principal couple, it was a vibrant and vigorous piece filled with energy and humor.

The find of the year must surely be "The Birthday of the Infanta," a gorgeously melodic "tragic tale with music in one act," by Zemlinsky (Arnold Schoenberg's teacher and father-in-law). At once a great success throughout Germany and Austria following its 1922 premiere in Cologne, this opera by a Jewish composer was soon banned by the Nazis. Long forgotten, it made its reappearance in Hamburg in 1981, then was mounted for the Edinburgh Festival in 1983 (where Menotti rediscovered it) and the Vienna Festi val of 1985.

A WORK of tremendous power and impact, Zemlinsky's score is intensely lyrical, a late-Romantic work whose "O maiden, take this glowing orange" is one of the great tenor arias of the century. Menotti directed the opera, based on Oscar Wilde's story of the same title, which tells of a spoiled Spanish princess and her birthday toy, an ugly misshapen dwarf who falls in love with her.

Robert Brubaker deserved his standing ovation for superb singing and his masterful portrayal of the tortured, heartbroken dwarf. Soprano Mary Dunleavy was a vocally satisfying Infanta but left something to be desired in her characterization of the spoiled princess. Her face and acting were much too serious at times. Marie Plette warmly portrayed the understanding maid, Ghita, the only person to see the dwarf's inner beauty.

The true hit of the festival is Menotti's new opera (finished at 5 p.m. the day before its first performance), "The Singing Child." It is a tender, poignant story of an 11-year-old boy left at home too often by his socialite parents. In loneliness, Jeremy creates an imaginary friend, a singing child. Together, they invent a musical language of their own while they play with toy trains and fight with wooden swords.

Beyond the humor built into the boys' musical roles, Menotti has given lush, broad melodic lines for the father and mother to sing, and wonderful little tidbits for Miss Potts, the baby sitter.

Scored for an orchestra of 13 players, Menotti's orchestral characterizations of the principals are deft: frequently catchy, sometimes petulant, often touching or pungent.

The vocal lines for the two 11-year-old boys are extremely difficult, often without accompaniment or pitch support. William Cole as Jeremy and Harold Haughton as the Singing Child, the two young men who sang these parts and who are in real life 11 years old - were outstanding. Haughton especially has a beautiful vocal instrument. Both boys kept near-perfect intonation on the melodic lines and were fine actors.

Federico Cortese conducted with great musical intelligence and perception. The father and mother were admirably sung by Ana Maria Martinez and Eric McClusky.

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