The Spoleto Festival only started on Friday, but four performances in, I feel confident saying that this is one of the best we’ve had in some time. Instead of a slate of good, but not particularly interesting performances riddled with a couple standouts — which was the case for the last two festivals, at least — I’m predicting this year will be just the opposite. I’ll not venture any predictions on which shows may end up being less than stellar. All I know is I haven’t seen any of them yet.
My duties as overview critic began with a preview performance on Thursday night by Musica Nuda, the Italian double-bass and voice duo. I owe them a debt of gratitude for starting my festival experience off on such an exhilarating note — the two gave an eye-opening, no-holds-barred, musically destructive performance, with singer Petra Magoni often veering off in the direction of performance art. I’m talking specifically about their infamous rendition of “Amazing Grace,” which involved a looping machine and lots of soprano screaming. The result was a punk-infused, over-the-top, bizarre, and most of all, dark, version of the spiritual that will probably never be heard again, and maybe never should be heard again. Let me qualify that, though, by saying that I actually loved it, only because it was the strangest, most unique reinterpretation I’ve ever heard at a concert. But it was strictly a one-time deal for me. No way would I want to hear that again.
That song was right at the midpoint of their show, and I was sure they’d lost the audience — predictably, there were a couple of walk-outs after the looped screams finally stopped. However, I apparently had underestimated Spoleto concertgoers, because post-“Amazing Grace,” the applause was louder and more enthusiastic than it had been before. (In a smart move, the duo segued right from that song into a perfectly-done rendition of “Nature Boy,” so there was no chance for the audience to show their appreciation — or lack of it — for another several minutes.)
I left the Musica Nuda show feeling inspired and astounded. In fact, I would have gone to their concert the following night, for which they promised an entirely new set list, if I didn’t have tickets to Paradise Interrupted.
That performance, too, was inspiring, though in a very different way. As I wrote in my review of the show, Paradise is an ambitious, courageous piece of theater that was obviously the result of creator and visual artist Jennifer Wen Ma’s specific, all-encompassing artistic vision. I liked it, I respected it, and I admired it as a display of wild creativity shaped by extreme technical discipline. But I did not love it.
I had previewed the show prior to its opening and learned during my interview with Ma that the genesis of this piece was the idea of the black garden, into which Paradise‘s archetypal Woman wanders in search of fulfilment. I was, therefore, very eager to see how she would realize the garden on stage — especially since it was supposed to grow out of nothing.
What she did was more or less create massive pop-up sections out of black, laser-cut paper. They folded flat and were unfolded across the stage by several stagehands when it was time for the garden to appear. It was an ingenious solution, but I did have one issue with it. The blackness, which was the whole point of the garden, also made it difficult to see the intricate details of the paper, especially toward the back of each section. To be honest, it left me underwhelmed.
The rest of the many visual effects, however, did anything but. Digital images filled a huge screen that served as the backdrop to the opera and varied from what looked like a visual rendering of white noise to beautiful rolling clouds to golden fireflies that dipped and swooped with abandon. A linear rendering of a tree grew out of the stage, and a white flower opened from the floor, too.
And when it came to the music, everything was perfection. The incomparable Chinese opera singer Qian Li is as beautiful and talented as I’d read she was — she seemed almost to float across the stage — and it’s clear she gives her whole self over to her performances. The four male singers, who sang in the Western style (Li sang in the Chinese style) were outstanding, especially tenor Joseph Dennis who sang in a very high register for most of the opera.
On Saturday, I saw Veremonda, l’Amazzone di Aragona, and the Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire. While Veremonda was a well-performed, very funny comic opera, I have to agree with CP reviewer David Lee Nelson that overall it was a fairly safe production, despite the colorful, cartoonish set and costume design by Italian artist Ugo Nespolo. I did love hearing a harpsichord in the orchestra pit — that’s not an instrument you hear often, unless you frequent Baroque music concerts.
Streetcar, on the other hand, is something I’ll remember for a long, long time. I’ve never been so moved by a work of dance, nor have I ever seen a ballet that succeeds as highly on the storytelling end as it does the dancing. From the moment the stage lights came up and showed Blanche DuBois (Araminta Wraith) stretching a fluttering hand toward a bare Edison lightbulb, then shrinking back from it, hands clutching her head, over and over, I was sold. If a moth were suddenly transformed into a human, this is precisely what it would look like. It was so heartbreaking, and so illustrative of Blanche’s frail and broken mind, that I couldn’t stop the tears from coming.
And they kept coming, too. One brilliant thing that the Ballet has done is put Blanche’s story in chronological order, so that the ballet opens with her wedding to her doomed husband, Alan, who kills himself when Blanche finds him with another man. After she discovers them, and dances a tortured pas de trois with both men, Alan runs offstage and shoots himself, appearing later — and many times throughout the ballet — in a grotesquely bloodstained shirt.
In a bold departure from the play, Alan is a recurring presence. He haunts Blanche as she goes her sad and sordid way, from implied prostitution after the loss of her family and home, to her awkward place in Stella and Stanley’s cramped, violent household. Blanche sees her young husband in other young men she meets — a bellboy, a newspaper delivery boy — and this serves not only to emphasize her mental fragility, but to make her into a far more sympathetic character than Tennessee Williams did.
Taking this kind of license with a masterpiece is a huge risk, but the Scottish Ballet did everything right. The dancing, from the principals to the corps de ballet, was superb. The music, jazzy but not overly so, was perfect. Even the theatrical effects surpassed anything I could have imagined. In a scene that illustrates the steady disintegration of Blanche’s family, starting with Stella’s leaving for New Orleans followed by a long series of deaths, Blanche and her mother, father, and relatives are arranged in a line in front of a black-and-white backdrop of a plantation home, posing as if for a photograph. A light flashes and we hear the “pffft” of a flashbulb, then one person collapses. The group rearranges. Again: a flash of light, “pffft,” and another death. Again. Blanche’s father drops a sheaf of papers, the deed to their plantation, before falling to the floor. And again. This continues until the only person left is Blanche, and when she turns, seemingly in disbelief at her utter aloneness, to face her home, it literally crumbles to the ground. I’ve never seen anything, in any theater, that matches the poetry of that sequence.
And that death and decay theme I saw developing before the festival opened? I’m still going with that, but I’d like to amend it. Right now, I’d say we’re at three and one (that one being Veremonda), with death winning. I’m putting Musica Nuda in the death group because they destroyed the original versions of the songs they performed, but just as importantly, they transformed those versions into something boldly their own. Paradise Interrupted took the Woman through a symbolic death and rebirth. Streetcar translated a dramatic classic into an entirely new dance masterpiece — and somehow, instead of losing bits to translation, it added even more poignancy, sadness, and emotional depth.
So yes, decay and death are everywhere this year. But so is awakening, even if strictly in a meta form. I look forward to seeing whether my theory holds going into this first full week.