High-flying Chagalls. High-pitched sopranos. Thimbles of whisky. Hundreds of rats. The 42nd annual Spoleto Festival USA cuts a vast and varied swath through the Western world, with much of the programming originating from the States or heading this way from just the other side of the Atlantic. When the festival ventures out, it’s to the charming terrain of Cornish theater makers, the Tuscan settings for 19th-century opera, or the urban turf of ingenious New York City choreographers on the crest of their fifteen minutes.
At the same, time, Spoleto Festival USA 2018 pulls closer in to its peninsular home, shuttering its marquis plantation concert for the stridently American stomping grounds of the local ballpark. Yes, there are far-off offerings too — high-octane Australian acrobats, for example – but in a year utterly lousy with national strife, it seems that more than a few homegrown artists have remained firmly fixed on their art – and that work frequently focuses on social justice.
Let’s Start at the Very Ending…
Goodbye, Great Lawn. Hello, The Joe. The big news for 2018 is arguably the venue change for the finale, which for four decades has taken over the grounds of Middleton Place. This year’s festival culmination will strike a decidedly more populist vibe when the Nashville-based trio, The Lone Bellow, takes aim for the back stadium seats of “The Joe,” as the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park is called.
“What we wanted was something easier for patrons,” says Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto Festival USA. He cited the ease of travel and Uber- and parking-friendly amenities of the stadium, along with the ability to still launch those famed fireworks. The finale has in recent years departed from its original classical programming to host contemporary musical acts, which, coupled with prime picnicking real estate, have attracted a different audience than other festival events. Could this be a first tremor of a seismic shift at the festival?
Italy in the House
After the past two years of making full acoustic use of the state-of-the-art Gaillard Center by way of epic productions like Porgy and Bess and Eugene Onegin, this year’s opera programming shifts out of the space to accommodate other works. The Sottile Theater gets the most sizable operatic splash with the U.S. premiere of Gaetano Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei. Set in pre World War II-Tuscany, it’s fashioned after 1930s Europe, with a plot powered by a jealous husband and music by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra.
At the Dock Street Theatre, opera fans get heady contemporary fare with the U.S. premiere of Tree of Codes, Australian composer Liza Lim’s work inspired by the book-slash-artwork by Brooklyn-based scribe Jonathan Safran Foer. Directed by festival vet Ong Ken Sen and conducted by the festival’s own John Kennedy, the opera premiered in Germany in April of 2016. Lim on her blog describes it as taking place “during an extra day grafted on to the continuity of life,” probing questions about what is authentic – and what is fake, and employing instruments including the “humble woodblock” to do so.
Also from Italy comes Il Matrimonio Segreto, an 18th-century comedic opera by Domenico Cimarosa performed by the centuries-old Milan-based Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company and involving an antic love triangle in Bologna. Ah, puppet love.
The Chagall of It All
The first of the copious theater offerings from the British Isles, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk represents a partnership between the returning Cornish company Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic. Telling the story of artist Marc Chagall and his wife, Bella, the show, which was largely lauded at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, at first glance looks to fill the Dock Street Theater with blithe and stylized romance.
Whisky and Wry
Making optimal use of the in-house bar of the Woolfe Street Playhouse, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart serves up a Scotch Whisky-fueled immersive interlude with the devil. Conceived by The National Theatre of Scotland (making its Spoleto debut) – it arrives in Charleston more or less on the heels of a five-month run in the bar atop the McKittrick Hotel in New York City (the former industrial space most known for the atmospheric hipster mega-hit Sleep No More from Punchdrunk). “The actors walk among the tables,” says Redden, who has wanted to bring the show to Charleston and the Woolfe Street Playhouse for some time.
The Art of War
Returning after last year’s triumph with Angel, playwright Henry Naylor again teams up with actor Avital Lvova in another searing, gripping piece on the fallout of war. In Borders, a sinking boat of refugees is the point of intersection for a young Syrian woman and a famed war photographer know for the snaps of Osama bin Laden in his portfolio.
It wouldn’t be a true Spoleto Festival without proper puppet action. In addition to Il Matrimonio Segreto, Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company also presents The Pied Piper, set in Saxony and availing of 11 puppeteers working 410 puppets – among them no less than 300 rats.
Jerome Robbins Revisited
Dance offerings this year arch dramatically stateside, beginning with the offerings by Miami City Ballet, which include works by contemporary choreographers Justin Peck and Alexei Ratmanksy, as well as those of Balanchine (Walpurgisnacht Ballet). “Miami City Ballet has become a real powerhouse,” says Redden.
To mark the occasion of late American choreographer Jerome Robbins’ 100th birthday, the company opens the festival at the Gaillard Center with a revival of his Celebration: The Art of the Pas de Deux, a work of five duets that premiered in 1973 at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy (from whence the Charleston festival gets its name). “I do think that Jerome Robbins is in our DNA and so is Spoleto, Italy,” says Redden. “It’s a wonderful tribute to our common history,” adds Redden, who is eager for there to be a connection between the Italian festival and Spoleto Festival USA.
Tap continues to energize the festival this year, with exuberant dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance of Dorrance Dance returning to Spoleto for eight performances featuring a wide-ranging lineup incorporating everything from electronic, tap-controlled floorboards to bare feet.
One Ballerina, Hold the Balanchine
New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns (who hails from Columbia, S.C.) breaks out of the Balanchine to join forces with contemporary New York choreographer and Twyla Tharp disciple Jodi Melnick in NEW BODIES, which serves as a double bill with One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures, a solo work for Melnick which she co-choreographed with Trisha Brown.
Politically charged choreographer and dancer Kyle Abraham returns to the festival with his New York-based company Kyle Abraham/Abraham.in.Motion – or A.I.M as they recently rebranded themselves. Look for two new works, one with a hip-hop score by Theo Parrish and Mobb Deep, and the other an intimate duet.
Australia represents this year through the circus and theater company Gravity & Other Myths, in a return to the festival with Backbone, which boasts the raw acrobatic feats of 10 performers as they explore the notion of strength.
Classical Mainstays and More
Along with the full annual freight of chamber music at the Dock Street, classical music lovers can get an earful at the Gaillard Center, when Brahms’s German Requiem heralds the return of soprano Natalia Pavlova (who last year moved Eugene Onegin audiences) as well the Westminster Choir, Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra.
Also at the Gaillard is You Are Mine Own, filmmaker Atom Egoyan’s multimedia love story drawing from Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite with poetry by Tagore. Later, those mad about Mozart and Mahler can relish both at a June 9 concert conducted by Steven Sloane. Westminster Choir devotees can also take in two of its heavenly signature concerts at St. Luke and St. Paul, as well as a female-focused concert of sopranos and alto choir members called Angels at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church.
With many of its five band members based in Charleston, the internationally acclaimed Ranky Tanky has of late traveled the world and back again. Along the way, they pretty much broke the Internet on NPR’s Fresh Air, with Gullah music of the Carolina/Georgia Sea Islands given a new spin of jazz, R&B, and gospel. “What makes the festival special is Charleston,” says Redden, who emphasizes his appreciation of the city’s longstanding championship of the arts.
Alll That Jazz
The College of Charleston’s Cistern Yard looks to again be alive and swinging for the run of the festival. Jon Batiste – identified these days for his role as the dynamic bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert who views music’s key role in bringing about social justice. On May 26, the Brooklyn-based Dap-Kings join Batiste.
Those jazzed about jazz can also take in vocal sensation Jazzmeia Horn; Afro-Cuban musical giant Chucho Valdés; the improvisation legends that make up Trio 3 Plus Vijay Iyer; the experimental improvisations of pianist Craig Taborn; the elegance of pianist and composer Fred Hersch; and Artifacts, a jazz ensemble that pays tribute to a collective founded on the Chicago’s South Side collective of the 1960s.
And, those seeking Southern fare will relish Ricky Skaggs. Folks into the next frontier in music should pop over to Woolfe Street Playhouse for the Music In Time series conducted by John Kennedy, to consider concepts like the collision of culture and our environment; a deconstruction of our understanding of language; and “in-betweenness” in all its forms.
After all that, slip on over to The Joe, where a cold beer, an over-the-top dog, topnotch fireworks blazing over the Lowcountry and the American roots-and-soul of The Lone Bellow is a satisfying and super easy sendoff of another transformative, transcendent arts immersion.
Spoleto Festival USA 2018 kicks off on May 25 and runs through June 10. Ticket sales open to the public on Mon. Jan. 22 at 10 a.m. Learn more online at spoletousa.org.