I’ll admit that I’m not generally the most cheerful person in the universe. I have a tendency to view the glass as half empty and am drawn to darker works of the art.
But I swear the gloomy theme that has emerged at the festival is not of my mind’s making, and there’s nothing depressing about it. But since I last wrote, just yesterday evening, two of the three works I saw had suicides and the third the death of a child. Don’t blame me, I didn’t program the festival. And don’t be afraid.
The two works were very different from one another and even from different festivals: the PURE Theatre production of Clybourne Park, the other the double bill of operas Mese Mariano and Le Villi.
The praise for PURE’s production (part of the Piccolo festival) is decidedly deserved. This is a powerful drama, with plenty of humor, set in the same house, but 50 years apart. In the first act, set in 1959, a couple is selling their inner-city home to a black couple — something neighbors are not thrilled about. There’s also a dark event haunting the house. The second act is set 50 years later, with a white couple planning to move into the house in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. It’s a full circle. And it’s a full circle in that all the actors in the first act are also in the second, at times playing relatives of those in the first. This is an ensemble work and the entire cast is stellar, as is the direction by Rodney Lee Rogers. Playwright Bruce Norris has created a play that’s filled with incredible language with many layers from the personal to the political, and PURE pulls off this brilliant, thought-provoking, and darkly humorous piece.
One of the Spoleto productions I was most looking forward to was the opera double bill of Le Villi by Giacomo Puccini and Mese Mariano by Umberto Giordano. The first is rather famous as Puccini’s first opera, written when he was only 26, although overshadowed by his many big hits. Mese Mariano has rarely been performed and has only recently been rediscovered by the larger opera community.
It sure was worth dusting off, and director Stephano Vizioli, his team of designers, and the festival orchestra led by Maurizio Barbacini have done a magnificent job. This may be a minor work, and it’s only 40 minutes long, but the music is beautiful and the story compelling and terribly sad. A young woman has left her child, born of a youthful affair, at an orphanage at the insistence of her husband. Although short, there are eight cast members with significant roles who get to wear wonderful post-World War II costumes and work out this tragedy on sets that include a gymnasium and a backdrop of a blow-up of a child’s drawing.
The singers, all of them remarkable, and the orchestra filled the Sottile Theatre (the perfect place for the opera) with near perfection. The grieving woman is sung by Jennifer Rowley, making her festival debut, as are most of those involved. While Rowley and the other pros nail it, special mention has to be made of the kids playing the orphans who are all local and all delightful.
Although I didn’t see many people crying at the end, as the director has hoped, they were certainly moved by the music and the story.
If that short opera was beautifully intense, Le Villi is mostly intense due in large part of Vizioli’s bold directorial decisions as well as the music and story. Things start sunny but slightly sad at a going-away party for Roberto who plans to marry the innocent Anna when he returns with his inheritance. All the men wear sharp light suits, the women in full pleated dress covered with blue flowers reflecting the giant blue flowers — Forget Me Nots — that cover the walls. They dance, helped along by about 10 dancers from Charleston’s Dance FX.
These sunny times are over soon. Roberto is seduced by “an enchantress” and Anna has died of a broken heart. She has gone to join the villi — the phantoms of forsaken women who lie in wait for the men who betrayed them.
Here the staging takes a radical turn and that ballroom is transformed into an insane asylum cell where the women jerk and twitch and roll on the ground — again thanks to the fantastic dancers. It’s visually and emotionally stunning.
Rowley is back again, transforming herself from the grieving mother in Mese, to the bright and innocent girl at the start of Le Villi, to a caged and blank-faced inmate. As the man who left her, Dinyar Vania is her equal in every way.
As the curtain fell on another tragedy for Anna and Roberto, the audience leapt to its feet as it should have.
For those who aren’t sure if they like opera or think they don’t, get to these and you just may be converted in two hours.
Friday night I ran into someone coming from Compagnie Kafig who was completely unimpressed. The reviews have been so-so. I was bored during the first piece on the two-part program by this group that melds Brazilian music and dance, hip-hop, breaking, and “urban” dance with a bit of modern dance thrown in.
At intermission I moved to the back of the hall (the unfriendly TD Arena) thinking I might duck out if things didn’t improve. Instead I did a lot of moving around myself, completely taken with the second work, Agwa, in part because my new “bad” seat let me look down on the stage and get a better feel for what was going on. (Although from that seat I still think I would have been bored with the first act.)
Agwa has a bit of a narrative, worked out through dance and a hundred or so clear plastic cups. The cups fall with a soft clatter from stacks, glow with golden lighting, are balanced by these intensely athletic dancers who have their solo turns but also work together like a well-oiled machine.
Overall a good day. I’d happily see all these again.
At a party after the operas, I hoped to run into the dancers from Dance FX — it’s such a big deal for local artists to take part in Spoleto and I wanted to personally congratulate them, but none were there. I asked a few young women who looked like dancers if they were with the company, but it turned out they were members of the circus Le Grand C which they proved by climbing on one another’s shoulders to create a human tower in the courtyard.
I did talk to Rowley about singing in both the operas. I’d interviewed her for an advance story and at that time we discussed how she’d have to transform herself during the 15-minute intermission. But as the staging transpired it turned out she’d have to become three characters counting the dead madwoman — as opposed to the sweet girl — in Mese Mariano. That’s something she said she didn’t learn she’d have to do until she arrived in Charleston a couple of weeks ago.
Along with all the death in this year’s festival, the supernatural also winds its way through many of the offerings. There are the villis in the opera (taking part in a kind of witches Sabbath) and the ghosts in Matsukaze. In Mayday Mayday, the protagonist is returning from the annual spring/pagan celebration when he has the accident around which the play is built. Midsummer Night’s Dream director Tom Morris describes the fairies in the play as “poltergiests.”
Spoleto is always a good place to find the otherworldly, but this year it’s upfront.