Love and longing filled Spoleto spaces in its second week, often twisting and turning precariously and perilously on today’s increasingly blurred gender lines. And, while the prior week was astoundingly female-rich in both talent and topics, the latest work takes that notion and raises it, introducing the other half to illuminate role reversals, power plays, and sexual dynamics that are alternately cogent, contorted, and even craven — and often in the name of love.
The majestic, deeply moving Eugene Onegin is a stirring stunner from director Chen Shi-Zheng, with a boldly stark set of ever-changing birch trees, multi-hued lighting, and projected outsize images. And this heart-rending glorious work also projected in lavish scale the bold act of the heroine Tatyana (Natalia Pavlova), a brainy Russian country girl with the chutzpah to pen a love letter to the man she desired — one Eugene Onegin (Franco Pomponi) — and promises more self-possession as the plot unfolds. In a nod to male vulnerability, Jamez McCorkle as the ill-fated Vladimir Lensky devastates.
Garry Hynes’ new production of Vivaldi’s Farnace rolls out a staggeringly sung rumination on male-female politics, starting with a title character undone by a rather vicious mother-in-law. Farnace (Anthony Roth Costanza) in turn makes beastly demands on his wife, like the murder of their child. This commissioned production also chooses to bend the gender of one of its roles, switching things up in a love triangle by swapping out one of the male suitors for a female. In doing so, we gain a heightened contrast to the manner in which men and women express their love, but I won’t spoil who prevails.
Elsewhere in opera, gender bends brutally in the Royal Opera House’s discordant, dystopian take on Luca Francesconi’s Quartett, further sharpening the fangs and soiling the knickers of Valmont and Merteuil (as in Dangerous Liaisons). In their bleak and grimy bunker, the two sex-addled lovers engage in a little role playing during which male become female, predator becomes prey. Adding to the gender pile-on is the fact that transgender mezzo-soprano Adrian Angelico plays Merteuil, so a former woman-turned-man plays a woman who then plays a man. If your brain now aches from keeping up with the bait and gender-switch, perhaps just take two aspirin and chuck the whole notion of an opposite sex.
In dance, tap phenom Ayodele Casel brought the Woolfe Street house down with her patter-punctuated, photo-documented, and gorgeously personal recounting of her journey as a rare female success story in the male-dominated tap world. A Bronx-born daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and absentee African-American father, Casel details tap’s vital role in her self-expression. Transcending race, she still runs up a man’s world, forcing her to “penetrate the circle of men,” as she put it. Hers are potent, loaded words, with plenty of footwork to animate and emphasize them.
Also in dance, OCD Love, Israel’s Gaga-powered L-E-V Dance Company revels in riveting, raw physicality and the just-miss nature of love, as five dancers come together and disconnect, propelled by the pulsing techno-stylings of DJ percussionist Ori Lichtik. Based on viral poet Neil Hilborn’s “OCD,” which is told from the point of view of an obsessive-compulsive narrator, the crazy-making, elusive desire for love manifests through a synthesis of precise contortions, graceful arabesques, gorgonesque poses, lurid lurches, ticks and chance gestures of menace. On L-E-V’s stage, the darker side of love is gender neutral. Regardless of anatomy, bodies attract and repel — coming together to then be disrupted, perhaps by an unexpected poke in the eye, a fitting, flinching metaphor for failed love.
And, while Gabriadze Theatre’s Ramona does assign gender to its romantic couple of puppet trains, it would be an awfully silly stretch to posit any intended messaging along those lines in this sweet, soulful tale from renowned Tbilisi puppet theater. True, an angry stationmaster scolds the rogue shunting train Ramona for dishonoring women. And, yes, I can’t help but wonder if our traditional notions of gender roles are going the way of the steam engine. However, this story hinges on love with a higher purpose, no matter the fallout. And, while the piece would clearly fare better in a smaller setting, it rolled along with heart and magic.
I won’t belabor gender in Della Mae’s beautiful bluegrass set in Cistern Yard beyond noting original songs like “Boston Town,” devoted to pro-Labor female mill workers, and “Long Shadow,” inspired by a Pakistani female musician — not to mention their encore choice of “9 to 5.” The talented five-women group also demonstrated that they can make epic music with their eyes closed: When the lights shorted out during their fiddle tune, they played jubilantly in the dark while Spoleto staff scrambled for flashlight spots.
So as the festival heads into its final days, I can say that this year’s program came together to collectively share what seems to be on many artists’ minds: dignifying women, exploring gender dynamics, and looking at love as a fraught proposition. Earlier, I posed a few other questions in this paper, and here are some added thoughts on those.
What purpose does an arts festival serve? One early response came [in] Mayor Tecklenburg’s elegant opening ceremony speech, when he asserted that an arts festival can further excellence in a city — and that the arts help vouchsafe integrity. I’m inclined to buy that, having borne some witness to Spoleto’s imprint on our city in the past 41 years. Whatever one may think of the growth that has come with the Spoleto spotlight, the success of a world-class, risk-taking arts festival has from the get-go compelled many lesser-inclined Charlestonians to embrace challenging, provocative works of art.
Sure, the Charleston body at times has rejected the organ, whether storming out of Martha Clark’s 1988 “Miracolo d’Amore” or naysaying the 1991 controversial site-specific Places With a Past. However, the festival has been evolutionary, if not revolutionary, in shaping local tastes and tolerance levels. (This theory can actually be tested at the exit doors this week with Gallim’s full-frontal W H A L E). I would also point out that local artists and cultural organizations keen to take similar risks benefit from Spoleto’s time-tested Teflon in the face of such flaps.
Another moment of revelation took place at the Gaillard Center during the Spoleto Celebration concert, when conductor Evan Rogister wrapped up the rousing Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story with a game “Any questions?” When it comes down to it, he seemed to be saying, the art should really speak for itself. One question did bubble up for me. When you pair up Bernstein’s famed work evoking rapidly changing urban landscape with another work on the program, Edmund Thornton Jenkins’ 1917 “Charlestonia,” it is hard not to consider which piece today most accurately reflects the wonder and the white noise of our crane-strained, ever-peopling city.
And, as I consider that cityscape and those who call it home, I’d like to add an observation about the other side of the proscenium. At Cistern Yard, each new artist implored its audience to join in, loosen up, and take part. These artists, who can read a room in a skinny minute, were almost to an act hell bent to raise the level of engagement. When encouraged, folks from the general seating sections happily came forward to lend their energy to offset the static front row. Whether in a theater seat or observing the festival goings on from a distance, diverse, dynamic, deeply committed audiences are as crucial to the lifeblood of a festival as the artists are, and to the making of inspired art. If the cacophony of our city is echoing Bernstein’s urban score, then now is the time to sound in, sound off — or just put your hands together to ensure that the arts resound.
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