On Sunday, the 35th Spoleto Festival slipped into history at Middleton Place plantation with a whisper of linen and a crackle of fireworks. We also heard yet another round of banjo-based music.
At this year's festival, the traditional bluegrass instrument threatened to outnumber violins. Whether this was truly part of a concerted strategy by the Spoleto marketing team to appeal to a younger, more banjo-and-Bubba public, as some suggested, or is reflective of a sudden surge in the international popularity and prestige of the banjo is a question that will be answered only in the fullness of time. But it's certainly true that this festival felt more self-consciously populist than others in recent memory. Trombone Shorty, for example, noted that not very long ago he was playing the Pour House on James Island. Another jazz series entry, 20-year-old Sarah Jarosz, is still in a position to pledge a sorority at her university of choice. Drag and performance artist Taylor Mac once again delivered a bracing dose of unfrumpiness with his Comparison is Violence, or the Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook, though he also chafed regularly, loudly, and often at his 10 p.m. time slot. There was even indie music and movies in the Warhol-inspired 13 Most Beautiful, and did somebody say hip-hop? You were covered with County of Kings. Young, black, country, indie, gangsta, and gay do not necessarily a hip festival make, but the canny minds at Spoleto know that box office records will not be approached, as they were this year, without a significant nod to the plebes. And if the plebes want banjos and transgender cabaret, then by God that's what they'll get.
The festival was strong out of the gate with its two major theater presentations. Kneehigh Theatre's The Red Shoes packed a wallop of theatricality into a small space around an even tinier story, making the audience as much a part of the performance as the battered-looking actors were. Audiences seemed to be of mixed minds about The Red Shoes. Some came away feeling as emotionally violated as the players looked; others seemed to have expected more Gate-style flash and pizazz, less improvising with found materials. Many compared Kneehigh's most recent entry in the festival unfavorably with the company's previous two productions, 2006's Tristan & Yseult and 2009's Don John. For some, Red Shoes' penultimate scene, in which the butcher relieves the young girl of her shoes by way of her feet, was too much, despite the fact that it occurred behind a closed door and involved red fabric standing in for blood. Kneehigh's extraordinary sense of theatricality made this scene and all the others feel real in a way that only the best productions can, creating an effect that's unique to live theater, something that simply cannot be replicated in any other medium, no matter how many explosive gunshot capsules or buckets of fake gore are on hand.
Theirs was also a different effect entirely than the one that Ireland's Druid Theatre was aiming for with its production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Dock Street Theatre, though no less grim and only slightly less bloody. McDonagh goes straight for the gut with his plays, and Cripple is almost unique in his oeuvre in that the result is not a floor strewn with actual guts (this grim play is often referred to as the one in which McDonagh reveals himself to have a heart, if that tells you anything about the others). The fine actors of this production knew well that the key to making all of this darkness and blight funny was to play it as straight and as honestly as Taylor Mac wears glitter, and the audiences loved them and laughed with them for it.
As for opera, the festival had its hands full this year, with major productions at the Sottile, the Memminger, and the Dock Street. As many observers noted, this was the year in which Spoleto finally kissed and made up with dearly departed festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti, dead now these six years. Curious, then, that they should choose to exhume The Medium, one of Menotti's most popular works, in which communing with the dead ends rather badly for everyone involved. This Medium was received well, not least for its effects-heavy staging. Even the enlightened standards of New York Times critic James Oestreich were unruffled, though he had less to say about the merits of the American premiere of Émilie at the Memminger. From vaunted contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho and librettist Amin Maalouf, Émilie was something of a puzzle, as opinions broke heavily in both directions on the new opera about 18th-century figure Émilie du Châtelet: lover of Voltaire, esteemed physicist, translator of Newton's Principia Mathematica. Even the musicians involved in the video-heavy production seemed of different minds about the work, some of whom admitted "hating" the score. Others noted that while soprano Elizabeth Futral did a remarkable job of managing this one-hander all by her lonesome, it was a pity she didn't have more to sing about than her fear of death, her killer work schedule, and the finer points of Newtonian physics.
At the Sottile, the umpteen-thousandth staging of Mozart's classic The Magic Flute was a crowd favorite for its charming story, its fantastical narrative elements, and its funhouse special effects. It's hard to go wrong with something as timeless as the Flute, and by most accounts the musical business here was in top shape, though there were dissenters. The main beef to be had with this production seemed to be its apparently arbitrary and visionless subservience to cheesy — there, I said it — effects, which upstaged all the performers. Floating flutes, live cockatiels, firecrackers, and levitating youths may have brought a childlike sense of wonder back to this opera, as some said, but they also prompted many to ask why directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier didn't also add bright, primary colors and Tinkertoys to make the effect complete.
At the smaller Emmett Robinson Theatre, Lemon Andersen won hearts on and off stage for his portrayal of the least thuggish, self-promoting, misogynistic hip-hop artist in history, one who loves the Bee Gees and poetry readings. Andersen was even spotted at Corella Ballet, tweeting about how "magnifique" it was.
In the same space, spectacular spectacle Taylor Mac used his audiences like a butcher block, carving up whole swaths of Charleston's straight, white, wealthy, privileged, Southern population for his own amusement before our eyes, and yet audiences loved him for it. In the end, they were assured of one thing: Taylor Mac tolerates them just as much as they tolerate him, no more and no less.
Less compelling in that space was Edgar Oliver's East 10th Street, a perfectly straightforward snooze-fest about the eccentric band of recluses with whom Oliver shared a house in New York City, and with whom we are all generally familiar from our own Thanksgiving and Christmas family get-togethers. Oliver's magnificent, lugubrious voice and bizarre elocution couldn't rescue this piece from the final-weekend doldrums, where it sank beneath the wake of the works that came before it. This included the wordlessly entertaining Circa. The Aussie troupe of acrobat/mime/dance/human pincushion artists packed more emotional insight into human nature into its jaw-dropping show without a single syllable than East 10th Street did with its 70-minute descriptive litany of circus freaks.
Did anyone tell the members of The Gospel at Colonus about the priests' doings in Cripple of Inishmaan? If so, they took it well, though Taylor Mac may have been less sanguine about both. Audiences turned out for Gospel at the Gaillard in droves, and they turned away at intermission in almost equal numbers. This production is no spring chicken, and it was showing all of its 26 years last week.
The three major dance works in the festival took viewers around the world with stops at France, Spain, China, and Tibet, double-dipping into Cambodia. Emmanuele Phuon's postmodern take on classical Khmer court dance in Khmeropédies I & II was trippy fun, even if it was full of Khmer dialogue that made no more sense than the keening Tibetan folksong that started Shen Wei Dance Arts' triptych of sensuous works. Shen Wei's approach to Cambodia was a different beast altogether, a dreamlike fantasy of breathtakingly gorgeous slo-mo surrealism that played out at the foot of a giant tree in the jungled environs of Angkor Wat. Shen Wei's presentation left audiences mesmerized and longing for more, whereas Corella Ballet's throngs of thongs lifted them out of their seats. Corella's jubilant quartet of works ranged from the uber-classical formalist moves for which it is renowned to the more Spanish-dance inspired maneuverings that make the troupe such an intercontinental treat. They were the talk of the festival for the first weekend.
Musically, the 35th Spoleto Festival was almost unsumuppable. When you've got some of the nation's best budding musical talent, as the festival does in the SFO, the Westminster Choir, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and other icons of chamber music, knocking off world-class concerts becomes almost as easy as falling down.
The festival got some serious facetime with a passel of celebrity composers, among them Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Moravec, ubiquitous film scorer Osvaldo Golijov, and Kaija Saariaho, who had her name on Émelie and also on the full final Music in Time program. Although Emmanuel Villaume left last year as musical director, James Gaffigan led the Festival Concert and, though admins have made much of their contention that there's no rush to fill Villaume's oversized French shoes right away, everyone expects Gaffigan to be at the top of any short list.
Spoleto's Jazz Series continued to reach well beyond the standard genres and geographies into realms where jazz is just another name for traditional roots music. Brazil, Argentina, Norway, Italy, and even New Orleans got some love under the stars at the Cistern and elsewhere. Improvisational legend Dianne Reeves popped into town for a single sold-out show at the Gaillard, and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue showed Spoleto patrons that it ain't really a concert if the audience stays sitting down.
Yet there's change afoot. This year the Gaillard goes under the knife for a $140 million renovation that will see it closed until 2015, at which time, for that kind of bank, one expects it will open as a concert hall and spaceport providing trips to the moon and back. But hey, South Carolina's got nothing but money for the arts, right? At Sunday's finale, one of the festival's musical managers said to me, "It seems strange that such a contemporary, artistically progressive festival like Spoleto could exist and be so successful in a place like South Carolina, which is so ... so ..." and fizzled out, unable to find an appropriately tactful descriptor.
Yes, we know the feeling. In the end, it is inexplicable. Spoleto, it seems, tolerates us just as much as we tolerate it, no more and no less.