“Man, I’m tellin’ you, it’s a lapazoo”! Come on, you remember, lyrics from “The Charleston”, that flapper dance number named after South Carolina’s historic, colonial gem, which “at last got you (South Carolina) on the map”? That was in the “Roaring 20’s”. Now, in the “Twittering Teenies”, it’s the annual Spoleto Festival that is Charleston’s lapazoo. (Google it. I had to).
I went this year and “I’ll be back”. Yup, I liked it. The festival has been a lynchpin of Charleston’s beating artistic heart for forty years, the brainchild of composer Gian Carlo Menotti, created to mirror the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy. Menotti was a man of broad horizons and his operas have unjustly lost prominence. An aside – in 1972 he quirkily acquired Yester House, near Gifford in East Lothian from the Tweedale family, proposing to turn it into a Scottish Glyndebourne, but the dream was never realised.
The two “Spoletos” are, however, a pretty good legacy on anyone’s terms. This year in Charleston three operas were on the stocks; Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”, Vivaldi’s “Farnace” and “Quartett” – music and libretto by Luca Francesconi.
I missed out on “Quartett”, which was performed only once – but that didn’t stop me from reading the blurb. It’s based on a cult play of the same name by Heiner Müller, derived in turn from Laclos’ “Dangerous Liaisons” (sic) of 1782 (a.k.a. “Les Liasons Dangereux” for we Europeans).
Press coverage at the premier of the original play at its debut gushed; “It is wild, blasphemous, provocative, made of monologues and no real action, with only two characters on stage”. So, apparently, was the opera.
Those by now familiar with your critic’s simple tastes will not be surprised to learn that on having been told he had missed the only performance he was to be found in a corner of his arty Hotel Vendue in the French Quarter whooping with grief over a double espresso. But he made up for it by popping along to a very funny version of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” – which is much the same thing.
On “Eugene Onegin” I declare an interest. This is one of my favourite operas and I rarely dislike it. Indeed, many moons ago I gave a Betamax recording of it to a girl I was trying to impress and she never spoke to me again. So, at least I know she watched it, but cast me in the role of that “swine” Onegin. I had been hoping more for the simpatico Lensky.
The venue, Charleston’s New Gaillard Center, was rather unforgiving from the outside, a bit like a souped-up London secondary modern, but it is home to an 1,800 seat jewel of a performance hall where acoustics are king.
Given that the backstage facilities are new and extensive, the production was disappointing and obviously done on an over-parsimonious budget. Mobile “spirally things” implying trees in a Russian forest hung down and were moved around continuously during the action by the cast, to suggest, well, a change of scene based on spirally things.
“Onegin” needs a few flourishes to pull off the contrasting moods of Pushkin’s unfolding drama. The boisterous country ball featuring Monsieur Triquet’s buffo solo is a grand affair. It’s also the scene of the disintegration of Onegin and Lensky’s relationship over the former’s cynical pursuit of the latter’s lover, Olga, leading to a challenge to a duel. This screams for lavish touches, not least to pass muster as an appropriate setting for the grand Mazurka. All we got was repositioned spirally things.
The ensuing duel scene, where Eugene kills Lensky, must, must, must be resolutely winter-bleak. And the elegant St Petersburg soirée at which Onegin re-encounters Tatyana in her new guise as worldly-wise wife of a rich, older man, so turning the tables on him by refusing to succumb to his advances, must, must, must be set in a sophisticated world, light years from the peasant idyll in which Tatyana first fell in love with Onegin and laboured over her fatal love letter.
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Frankly, “spirally things”, no matter how deftly moved about, just don’t cut it. And a tight budget is no real excuse. I’ve seen excellent Onegins performed on a shoestring. Christopher Barreca, the set designer, may be acclaimed, with 150 international productions (mostly theatre) on the clock, but he disappointed here.
Natalia Pavlova (Tatyana) was the standout in an excellent cast. Her innocent, lovelorn enthusiasm was convincing, but would have been more so if the conductor, Evan Rogister, had shown more drive. Tchaikovsky’s score is chock full of sweeping passages which demand a fine touch on the tempo peddle as they plunge the depths and soar to the heights of emotion.
Maestro Rogister’s approach was from the metronome school of conducting, disappointingly clunky. Neither Ms. Pavlova nor the other members of the cast could deliver the full impact of the drama of which they were clearly capable.
As at Ireland’s Wexford Festival the chorus in Charleston is local, the Westminster Choir, and they were terrific, although a more distinct costume change as they morphed from peasants to formal ball guests would not have gone amiss.
“Farnace”: is a Vivaldi opera dating from the 1720’s. Well, “up to a point, Lord Copper”. Many of Vivaldi’s recognized “works” are cobbled together from bits and pieces of autographed scores discovered in the 1920’s. Hence, Vivaldi’s original “Five Seasons” has only recently been premiered in Venice (just joking!).
So, much Vivaldi carries a “fake news” warning already and this was Farnace’s first fully staged outing in the US. What was about to happen? The Director was Garry Hynes, Tony award-winning Irish co-founder of the Druid Theatre Company, lauded for directing “DruidSynge”, a production of all six plays by John Millington Synge in Galway, 2005. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not joking this time, although it sounds as though it is straight out of Pseud’s Corner, Private Eye.
What a mess. The Farnace story is a follow up to “Mitridate Re de Ponti”, (first outing courtesy of Scarlatti in 1707, then more famously Mozart in 1770). It’s set in 63BC in what is now Crimea, then under the sway of the Roman General, Pompeo. I groaned inwardly when the set revealed not Roman columns, but a backdrop of a bombed out suburb of what could have been Aleppo.
Then the noble Farnace staggered on, but as a terrorist straight from ISIS central casting – AK47, bandoliers of bullets, tattered fatigues et al – and Pompeo had swapped his armour for a well cut Armani camel coat, a white shirt and black tie. I suppose at least it was Italian.
Worse was to come. One key plot line is an attempt by Farnace’s sister, Selinda (Naomi Louisa O’Connell), to play off two of her captors, the “princes” Gilade (Augusta Caso) and Aquillo (Kyle Pfortmiller), respectively a Captain and a Prefect. Gilade is a trouser role (mezzo); so far, so mind-bendingly complicated, but, for the era, familiar. Could Ms. Hynes leave tradition well alone? Nope.
So, what’s happening here with “the old, girl in the trousers ploy”? Maybe Gilade’s loosely flowing locks are down to her having forgotten to put her boy’s wig on. That’s it. After all, the surtitles kept referring to her – I mean him – as “Prince”.
Wrong. Ms. Hynes had quixotically cast Gilade, the Roman Capitan, as a lesbian, wooing Princess Selinda, whose main plot raison d’être is to sow seeds of chaos between the two testosterone charged rivals for her favours. The LBTBG tolerance of the Roman Army is obviously a little known fact, which Ms. Hynes thought deserved to be better aired.
“Do you know what the hell’s going on?” asked the guy from Albuquerque who was sitting next to me, at the interval. Well, yes, actually. But he wasn’t impressed by the explanation. I suppose it’s a tribute to American fly-over state tolerance that he was more upset by the Armani coat than the lesbian Captain.
Farnace was sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo, a counter tenor whose physical slightness was in direct disproportion to his ability to project a faultless voice. He was the star of the show. But, kitted out as a Poundland version of Osama bin Laden he lacked credibility as a vengeful Prince.
The jigsaw of Vivaldi’s score had been pieced together with good effect. The opera flowed seamlessly, arias were lyrical and the work deserves a slot in the mainstream repertoire – so long as Ms. Hynes is kept away from it. Maybe Spoleto will look beyond theatre directors when they pick the 2018 season’s opera programme.
So, should you ”do” Charleston? Absolutely. The Spoleto Festival is an eclectic brew of music, art and theatre in one of the most unspoiled and friendliest of American towns. General Sherman fortunately passed by in his 1864 ravaging march to the sea during his Civil War Savannah campaign, so much original architecture remains. And, returning to the words of that song, “Every step you do, leads to something new”.