Before Spoleto started, and I was thinking about the festival as a whole, I saw a couple of themes emerging. One was death and decay — and the beauty of those things, which art has a way of revealing. The other theme I saw (if you can call it a theme) was a strong presence of the visual arts, even though there’s no strict visual arts component to the festival. 

Halfway through the first week, I’m still standing by those ideas, although I’ve since — gladly — added rebirth to the whole death and decay thing. 

And while I’ve seen these overarching themes and approaches at work variously in each production I’ve attended, they’ve only converged completely at two: Paradise Interrupted and Carlo Colla & Sons’ marionette Sleeping Beauty. I’ve already written plenty about Paradise (blog post here, review here), so I’m skipping over that. But Sleeping Beauty deserves some time and words. 

This marionette play was actually one of the first shows I thought of when contemplating the death-and-life idea. After all, puppets are so very symbolic, so pregnant with metaphor — by themselves, they’re lifeless, but when someone who knows how to work them comes along, suddenly they can erupt with enchanting, yet false, life. 

With Sleeping Beauty, that false life was especially enchanting. After all, Colla & Sons has been doing this for 250 years, so they’ve perfected the art of the marionette, not to mention the entire art of puppet theater. The company has transformed the Emmett Robinson Theatre into a puppet-sized (the marionettes are about three feet tall) stage with a false proscenium, a scaled-down curtain, and a huge range of scenery — there are seven different scenes in the play, all of which have completely different sets. The decor is very grand, intricate, and old-fashioned, with a velvet curtain, for example, and lots of deep red and gold.

This is where the visual arts thing comes in. Everything from the scenery to the movable props to the marionettes themselves were incredibly detailed and visually arresting. The colors were bright, the sparkles were sparkly, the fabrics were rich. 

When the curtain opened for the first time, after we’d heard the overture to Tchaikovsky’s ballet score The Sleeping Beauty which served as the play’s soundtrack, it was startling to see how … lifelike isn’t the right word, but how animated the puppets were. And there were a lot of them on stage, as the pages and other palace staff were rushing around preparing for the Princess Aurora’s christening.

The only problem is that I’d really had about all I needed 30 minutes in to the performance, and there was still more than an hour to go. It turned out that not only was the scenery and staging old-fashioned — the script was too. My goodness but that script was clunky. And not that one goes to a marionette performance for the script, but as the characters took literal minutes sometimes to move from a static idea, like “the palace must be perfect for the princess’s christening,” it became rather difficult to sit through. Certainly allowances should be made for the translation (Colla & Sons are Italian), but I don’t think all of it was due to that fact.

My feelings after it was over were that it was an impressive display of skill and artistry, and I’m thrilled that Colla & Sons is keeping this art form alive and thriving — but I really found it tedious. Happily, however, at least a few of the children in the audience, and there were several, disagreed with me. 

But my night did improve. From Sleeping Beauty I headed to the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra concert, which is always a highlight. This year, John Kennedy conducted the young orchestra — it’s formed anew each year from young professionals and grad students across the country — in a program that consisted of the Concerto for Orchestra by Asian-American composer Tan Dun; the vocal piece Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber; and the Symphony no. 5 by Jean Sibelius. 

I was not a huge fan of the Concerto until the third movement, but once that came I was a total convert. Tan Dun’s piece was a meditation of sorts on Marco Polo, and (according to the program notes) reflects Polo’s three separate journeys: geographical, musical, and spiritual. While the first and second movements are concerned with the spiritual and geographical, the third movement takes us into the sounds of the desert and desert instruments — the strings were plucked and muted and bowed to sound similar to sitars, while the music was punctuated by first whispered, then shouted chants from the musicians (I think it was only the men who chanted, although I wouldn’t swear to it). 

The fourth movement, however, was positively exhilarating. Intense drumming accompanied a continuation of the staccato chanting, while the string players nearly played their fingers off. The music built and built into these amazing crescendoes, and when it finally broke at the end I felt like I’d just been tumbled through an ocean.

I didn’t care all that much for the Barber, which sets a prose poem by James Agee to music. The music is quite pretty, and the text is unique for a classical vocal piece — “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in that time where I lived there …” etc. is part of the first line — but I don’t think it’s something I need to hear again. Soprano Alyson Cambridge, however, had a glamorous, dramatic stage presence and a perfect operatic voice.

The Sibelius was a soaring masterpiece, and I walked out humming the triumphant final theme. It was a beautiful, beautiful concert and the orchestra — and Kennedy — gave it their all. I’m already looking forward to next year’s.

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