SPOLETO 2006 » Choral & Concert Music

CHORAL & CONCERT MUSIC ‌ A Tale of Two Series

The first weekend of music proves memorable

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Roméo et Juliette, Music in Time's John Kennedy, Don Giovanni, and The Spoleto Festival Orchestra create beautiful music together
  • Roméo et Juliette, Music in Time's John Kennedy, Don Giovanni, and The Spoleto Festival Orchestra create beautiful music together

The huge artistic juggernaut of Spoleto started last Friday and, reeling from artistic overload, we struggle to put what we can catch of it into words. Musically, much of the best has already begun. Two grand operas, in fresh trappings that explore the art's outer limits, three major series off to great starts, on top of the bewildering array of dance, theatre, jazz, etc. And all that's before we even get to the Piccolo festival's varied smorgasbord.

I've been to both operas — and found some common themes. They're both on the very cutting edge, traditional masterpieces offered in exciting and effective new scenarios. Curtains? There's nary a one to be seen in either one. We see fairy-tale Mozart on a 200-foot, building-length stage. And could this be the year of the hunky hero at Spoloeto? Both male leads look like cover boys for Muscle and Fitness magazine. Gounod filters Shakespeare a-la Francaise, and that gets transplanted into the unlikely trappings of a modern New Jersey mortuary. How much artistic tampering can the art of yesteryear stand? That's a question we ask ourselves a lot here at Spoleto.

Roméo et Juliette is a late-romantic marvel, and the story's universal appeal has seen it through quite a few outlandish incarnations. How many movies of the same name can you count? So why not a gangland version? One of the movies gets away with it. We all love and suffer for it, and it happens everywhere, even in funeral homes.

But we musn't forget that music's the main attraction, and it got choice treatment on Friday. After much rehearsal frustration, everything gelled just in time. Our Juliette, Nicole Cabell, is a dream come true. Her creamy, spectacular soprano served her (and us) very well. This production will no doubt be one of her springboards to stardom. Frédéric Antoun, as Romeo, offered her a sweet and passionate partnership.

With over 20 festivals under my belt, I'm a relative Spoleto old-timer, but I've never experienced a poor outing at the Music in Time series, Spoleto's annual tribute to cutting-edge new music. The opening program, on the festival's first Saturday, was no exception.

Director/conductor John Kennedy dug up some truly fascinating stuff for this one, beginning with "Christian Zeal and Activity," an eerie, hymn-like chamber orchestra piece by John Adams that's built around the looped tape of a tent preacher's sermon, uniquely American, to say the least. Ira Mowitz's Shimmerings surrounds a recording of his computer-generated music with the sounds of seven varied instruments. The end result is best described by its title. Artificial intelligence meets the real article — and the composer was there to tell us about it.

Those two numbers alone would've made the evening memorable, but the biggest hit came last. Hearing Solution is an intense piece from Russian composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky for multiple instruments that mimics (among others) the kind of strange sounds you experience in a hearing test (it was commissioned by a hearing aid company). With super-cellist Jason Calloway leading the way, its subtly edgy mood prevailed until near the end, when it suddenly blossomed into some of the most purely gorgeous, melting modern music I've ever heard. The happy house was packed, as it will no doubt be for the series' remaining three events. Book now or regret it.

Despite a couple of reportable glitches, Sunday's Intermezzi series opener came off nicely, too. The first work — Anton Webern's Op. 21 Symphony — proved to be somewhat contentious. A challenging, but quite coherent 12-tone piece, it drew both warm applause and furtive negative mutterings from the crowd. Later in the concert, conductor Marc Williams digressed, talking to the crowd about the Webern piece and then leading the musicians in a second performance of it: "Hey, it only lasts eight minutes." Like he said, this is a work that bears repeat listening, and most of us were grateful for the second chance. Sure, you can't expect everybody to "get" 12-tone music, and so there were yet more audience whispers. And at least a dozen people got up and stalked out after the music began, something I've never seen happen at an Intermezzi concert.

The hit of the concert was a near-ideal go at Mozart's beloved Clarinet Concerto, with featured soloist Amitai Vardi. The orchestra was warmly brilliant, and Vardi's playing had it all: dulcet tone, touching musicianship, and glittering passagework. Too bad he suffered an apparent memory lapse in the middle of the final movement. Even so, after a couple of uncertain measures, he recovered nicely and went on to a brilliant finish. Proof positive that a single slip doth not a bad performance make.

The final piece — Beethoven's first try at a real symphony — ended the evening with spirit and wit. Kudos to the terrific players of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra for some inspired work in both of these key series. Between them, the omens remain auspicious for much more classy musical adventure from this series in the coming two weeks.

Curiously, there were still more audience walk-outs at Don Giovanni later that evening, which Spoleto is making an encore of this year after having a huge success with the production at the 2005 festival. As anyone who's glanced at the program description must know, this is an irreverent modern staging of a very traditional work. Yet a number of presumed opera purists (looking rather upset) stormed out of the Memminger in the middle of Act I. I've also heard some negative rumble about the shameful sacrilege of transplanting the hallowed story of Roméo et Juliette into a latter-day mortuary, as co-directors Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil have done. Folks — hello? Why are you at Spoleto in the first place if you can't take a little modern artistic license?

But back to Don Giovanni. The opera world just may have been taking W.A. Mozart's greatest opera entirely too seriously for centuries. Or so it seems, from this year's festival re-run. What? An evil Lothario womanizing his way to certain doom in a mostly lighthearted and whimsical setting? If you've seen it done traditionally, this version will make your head spin.

This is a totally new kind of operatic stage: it takes up the entire length of the gutted Memminger Auditorium, making for a vast operatic fantasy-world. Inside the 200-foot enclosure is a sloping, tree-studded wooden platform, complete with "ponds" that many of the characters frolic in. Ever seen opera singers perform wet before? The orchestra is right out in the open, and is part of the stage action.

Just about the only traditional trappings were some of Falk Bauer's period costumes. Others ranged from the hero's skimpy Speedo to the wispy white flimsies that made the opera's peasants (members of the Westminster Choir) look like refugees from a wet T-shirt contest. We experience the singers from all directions and perspectives. They sing sitting, standing, reclining, wresting, making out, and swinging from the rafters. A lot of it is done "on the run," with characters scattering throughout every nook and cranny of the enormous set. Moving around like that causes quite a few slightly out-of-synch moments 'twixt singers and orchestra, but we can overlook that, in light of the production's other attractions.

Opera purists, beware. There's something here to offend just about anybody. Singers interact with audience and orchestra at random. The Don's last meal comes from KFC. Mild obscenity — scatological and erotic alike — abounds. Potty-mouth Mozart would've been delighted. Teaching heavy lessons in lighthearted, comic context is nothing new. Musically, all is well. Maestro Villaume holds everybody together nicely, and the orchestra sounds great. Quite a few liberties are taken with the score, but it doesn't affect the piece's flow unduly. Lead singers are all exceptional, with Nmon Ford's gutsy baritone leading the way.

Stage Director Günter Krämer and his production team had a grand old time toying with their operatic wonderland, and have come up with a few minor updates this year. Fantastic set design, surreal lighting and glorious music combine to create a magical and whimsical atmosphere that still lets the weighty moral lesson shine through. With the above-noted exceptions, the crowd loved it, too, judging from the lengthy ovation and the curtain-less curtain calls. Hey, you've never, ever seen anything remotely like this, unless you were here last year. Only at Spoleto can they pull off something like this. See my primary review on page 34, and follow the link to my review from last year, most of it still applies.

Another Spoleto is off to a fabulous start, at least musically. Pray that we all live long enough to keep writing about it, 'cause there's much more to come.

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