The Charleston-based event hosts two premieres of emotional intensity
When the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter in April of 1861, the city of Charleston became known as the 'cradle of rebellion', the launching ground for the United States’ Civil War.
Such a rebellious spirit lives on in a different way today with the Spoleto Festival USA (its sister festival takes place in Tuscany), a convergence of music, art, dance and theatre that was originally instituted by composer Gian Carlo Menotti. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who boasted a blend of the unusual and the familiar, and it’s a spirit that has carried on in the festival, under the artistic leadership of Nigel Redden since 1995.
Take, for instance, the first of its two operas this season. While Philip Glass’s Kepler, set to a libretto in German and Latin, has been performed previously in the United States, most prominently in a concert version at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2009 Next Wave Festival, it received a world premiere on Saturday night (with performances continuing until June 2) in an English-language version geared towards making the textured libretto more accessible to American audiences. It was also the opera’s first full staging in the country.
The elliptical orbits discovered by 17th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler (a rebel in his own right) are natural, perhaps even cosmic, fits for Glass. Vocal lines run in circles, but the destination is of less importance than the journey, rife as it is with churning repetitions and driving rhythms. In true Glass fashion, we learn about Kepler as a person through his work and ideas. John Hancock excelled at the title-role while conductor John Kennedy not only made the demanding, meticulous details of Glass’s score sound easy, but also brought forward a dense emotional richness not heard in Glass since Satyagraha.
At the other end of the operatic spectrum, Spoleto gave the official American premiere, indeed the first staged production, of Guo Wenjing’s Feng Yi Ting. Its heavily Chinese tonalities and modes were bound to ring foreign to a predominantly Western audience. But the story – based on the story of courtesan Diao Chan, a femme fatale who orchestrates what director Atom Egoyan best describes as a ‘sexual coup d’état’ – was all too familiar for opera-goers weaned on Strauss, Puccini and Verdi.
What’s engrossing was the music, laden with conflict and fraught with tension. Soprano Shen Tiemei and tenor Jiang Qihu sang in the traditional Peking and Sichuan operatic style. However, their stratospheric pitches and constricted tones clashed beautifully with a more typically Western score that blends a traditional orchestra with native instruments like the pipa and erhu. Deep rumbles arrive simultaneously knotted and untangled. Like Glass’s music, Feng Yi Ting (running until June 7 and stopping in New York at the Lincoln Center Festival, also under Redden’s directorship, in July) is characterised by an emotional neutrality that leaves the audiences to decide for themselves how they feel.
Walking out of the theater both nights and rounding the corners of downtown Charleston, I heard snippets of conversations of fellow stimulated audience members parsing out the particulars in a way that validates the risks Spoleto is taking in the name of furthering artistic dialogue.
In a 1999 letter to the editor of the Charleston Post and Courier, a woman expressed her upset at Spoleto’s avant-garde tendencies, hoping that the festival ‘gets better and better as it ages – and not weirder and weirder’. Nearly 13 years later, what they seem to have hit on is that weirder can, in fact, also be better. It’s certainly a rebellion that I can get behind.