As I write this, it's only three days into the festival, and I've been to only four events, plus a pleasant festival-sponsored cocktail party thrown for the media. But even that's been enough to give me some idea as to how the festival is unfolding thus far, and to get a feel for some of the happenings and presences that are giving Spoleto 2011 its unique stamp.
The single word that best characterizes this year's festival so far is, simply, magic. That tone was set on opening day with the first performance of the headline opera, Mozart's The Magic Flute. Copious and potent magic came at us not only from the stage, but from just about every corner of the Sottile Theatre. Perhaps the opera's most magical episode happened in the first scene, when Papageno, the birdcatcher, made his initial entrance and introduced himself to us in song. He bore on his back a cage full of lovely, pure-white birds (cockatiels?), with several more of them fluttering around him, perching on his arms, shoulders, and even his head. Singing (and blowing his panpipes) all the while, he began to put the birds into his cage. Then somebody released another bird from the rear of the theater, which flew right over our heads straight to Papageno, as if he had called it to him. You could hear the audience's collective gasp of delight. Bird trainer Alicia Rudd certainly deserves credit. You've got to wonder how many hours Papageno (fabulously portrayed by baritone Ruben Drole) had to spend getting comfy with his feathery friends and mastering the knack of singing his aria while handling them. Well, maybe it wasn't real magic, but it was a truly magical moment.
I haven't seen Spoleto's other two operas yet, but from what I've heard and read thus far, I expect there'll be magic to them as well: especially in festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium, his operatic tale of a fraudulent sorceress who ironically meets her fate at the hands of the mysterious supernatural forces she claims to command. I'm not yet quite sure how magic will figure in Kaija Saariaho's Émilie, this year's contemporary opera, but I'm certain there'll be some to talk about. After all, the heroine was a noted early physicist, and the mysteries of physics, back in the early 18th century, certainly bore the stamp of magic. The best examples of operatic art tend to take us out of the humdrum routine of our daily lives and into another time and place, and if that's not magic, then what is?
Perhaps this year's biggest festival coup has been the presence of two of the world's hottest living composers: Kaija Saariaho and Osvaldo Golijov. I saw Golijov everywhere, or at least anywhere his music was being played. He was at Friday's Chamber Series opener and interviewed by Fred Child of American Public Media's Performance Today. He was also at Friday's Magic Flute opener, and at the Music in Time (MIT) show on Saturday. Featured there was another of his works: ZZ's Dream, a wonderfully serene piece for chamber orchestra that evokes a Chinese poet's fanciful musings as to whether he's actually a man dreaming about being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he is a man. He wasn't at Sunday afternoon's Chamber II outing, but his same composition was played there, too, in an alternate version for solo piano. You'd think he was a rock star, the way folks have been flocking to talk to him. I also heard my first festival work by Saariaho at Chamber II, Oi Kuu, and it was fabulous.
Child is apparently a newly converted Spoletian and is sticking around Chucktown for a while to sample as many musical delights as he can. I've wondered for years why Child hasn't visited us before, given Spoleto's glowing global reputation. But it's not all play and no work for him — he plans to devote much of his show to Spoleto's classical performances and artists, with choice interviews from major festival composers, performers, and personalities.
Finnish sensation Saariaho, whose Émilie received its American premiere here, will have five shorter works featured in the final MIT program on June 9. Coincidentally, Golijov is not the only composer whose "butterfly music" is being heard here this year, as one of Saariaho's MIT numbers will be her Sept Papillons (seven butterflies) for solo cello, one of my personal faves among her works.
Talk about magic. Isn't that what it'll be if a musician (Madeleine Kabat) can convince us that her cello is actually a bevy of butterflies? I can hardly wait.