Spoleto '99: a two-week arts explosion

For 17 days each year between spring and summer, Charleston, S.C., turns into a hot arts destination.

The city overflows with chamber music and dance, opera and theater, jazz and performance art, as well as exhibits and lectures, all held in the historic district along the waterfront.

The Spoleto Festival USA, now in its 23rd year, attracts tourists from all over the country as well as producers, agents, and managers seeking new acts. The celebration is modeled after the Festival of Two Worlds that Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti created in 1958 in Spoleto, Italy, about 80 miles from Rome.

This year's Spoleto, which opened May 27 with Puccini's opera "Il Trittico," includes more than 140 performances and features as many as 10 different performances each day before closing June 13.

Other highlights have included the first American staging of Kurt Weill's "Die Brgschaft," about the turbulent 1930s in Germany; David Mamet's "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants," a play that centers on con games and deception; a series of chamber-music concerts; and a performance by jazz legend Sonny Rollins.

The Spoleto Festival Orchestra will bring the festival to a close this Sunday with a concert of George Gershwin's "Catfish Row" and Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," followed by spectacular fireworks.

Mixed-media creation

One of the most unusual and contemporary events at this year's Spoleto Festival has been the production of Laurie Anderson's "Songs and Stories From Moby Dick," an opera, a multimedia event, a show, and "performance art."

Ms. Anderson was first known in the 1960s for her street performances in SoHo playing her electric violin while roller skating. She then turned to writing "meaningful" poems and minimalistic music. These soon appeared on recordings and brought her wide recognition.

"Moby Dick" is a high-tech spectacle of word and image sprinkled delicately with ethereal music. The work includes a cast of four performers, accompanied by an assortment of musicians who maintain a volume level equal to that of a rock concert.

Huge projections are cast on the back wall of the stage. Anderson herself plays the whale - in itself a strange twist - with Tom Nelis portraying the obsessive Ahab.

"Although pieces of Melville's text of Moby Dick have cropped up in some of my songs and films over the years," Ms. Anderson says, "I hadn't really read the whole book since high school.

"Being somewhat of a dark person myself, I fell in love with the idea that what you look for in your whole life will eventually eat you alive."

Puccini's triple bill

Puccini had long wanted to write a triptych made up of three one-act operas. Few opera companies attempt to produce "Il Trittico" as he envisioned it - three operas on the same bill. It demands too much in terms of cast, chorus, orchestra, sets, and costumes for most opera companies.

It also produces a long evening at the opera house for those accustomed to today's short TV programs. ("Il Trittico" ran four hours.)

Though the three casts were outstanding, and though the excellent Spoleto Festival Orchestra in the pit was most ably conducted by Steven Sloan (the music director of the festival since 1988), the staging by British director Keith Warner was at complete odds with Puccini's highly lyrical, lush music.

American stage premire

The first American staging of Kurt Weill's radical 1932 opera, "Die Brgschaft" ("The Pledge"), has been the centerpiece of this year's festival.

Weill, best-known for his popular tune "Mack the Knife" from "The Threepenny Opera," places themes of trust and friendship at the core of "Die Brgschaft," a bit of epic theater with its roots in the medieval passion play and Japanese Kabuki theater.

First produced in Berlin in March 1932 (three days before Hitler was elected chancellor), "Die Brgschaft" is about two friends who become corrupted by money and power.

Weill's score is powerful, dramatic, and eclectic. Mixed with tender love songs and duets, harshly dissonant arias, and trios of the "Three Highwaymen" and "Three Blackmailers" are a couple of tangos and a 1930s-style fox trot, complete with slide-trombone slurs, and several marches.

The staging centered on a variety of cardboard boxes that symbolically formed arches, cubby holes to hide in, towers to stand upon, seats and tables, even the executioner's chopping block.

A hot-air balloon, made up of tattered rags and shreds of cloth, hung high above the barren stage. At the climax of the opera, it spewed smoke and burst into a beautiful Christmas tree ornament.

Weill's "Die Brgschaft" is not only his greatest masterpiece, as he himself thought, it is one of the great masterpieces of 20th-century music.

*The Spoleto Festival runs through June 13. The festival's Web site is www.spoletousa.com

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