Friday, June 27, 2014

Charming Charleston—The Spoleto Festival…and much more

Spoleto Festival USA
May 23-June 8, 2014
Charleston, SC

Fort Sumter Tours
Liberty Square and Patriots’ Point, Charleston, SC

Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting Street, Charleston, SC

The charms of Charleston—stemming from its dual role as a laidback southern city and bustling college town—make it the ideal setting for the annual Spoleto Festival, which presents dozens of concert, theater, opera and dance performances over two weeks each May and June.

The 39th edition of Spoleto Festival USA (May 22 to June 8) included operas by Leos Janáček, Michael Nyman and John Adams; theater from Ireland’s renowned Gate Theatre; various dance troupes; and concerts by Lucinda Williams, Bela Fleck, Michael Nyman and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra.

Horne as Kát'a (photo: Julia Lynn)
Of the handful of Spoleto performances I caught, most memorable was a powerhouse staging of Janáček’s masterpiece, Kát'a Kabanova, based on Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm. As Kát'a, the young village wife whose true (and tragic) love is a young man who’s not her husband, American soprano Betsy Horne gave an all-encompassing portrayal far too rare on opera stages: she acted up a sensuous storm and sang with ringing clarity. Director Garry Hynes’ subtle staging, Anne Manson’s sensitive conducting and Jennifer Roderer’s ferocity as Kata’s domineering mother-in-law complemented Horne’s emotionally raw display that tore straight to the heart of the tragedy.

Conversely, it was difficult to sit through Facing Goya, Michael Nyman’s unlistenably tedious opera that—via Victoria Hardie’s impossibly pretentious libretto—combined the eponymous 18th century Spanish painter of genius, Nazi eugenics and modern science’s ability to play God, garbled together to no discernible point. I felt sorry for the talented quintet of singers, especially soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, who amazingly nailed some treacherously high notes; Nyman’s minimalist music, which can be quite diverting in the context of Peter Greenaway’s visually entrancing films, becomes unbearable when it pounds away unrelievedly for two-plus hours.

I sampled a recital from the Bank of America Chamber Music series, which is curated and introduced by the personable Geoff Nuttall. The hour-long afternoon program comprised Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, George Crumb’s bizarre Voice of the Whale—which must be seen to be truly appreciated—and Ottorino Respighi’s lush setting of a Shelley poem, Il tramonto, beautifully sung by mezzo Charlotte Hellekant and deftly played by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, with Nuttall playing the first violin part.

I also caught an hour-long Intermezzi concert, consisting of Richard Strauss’s melodrama Enoch Arden: actor Stephen Brennan spoke the text to Tennyson’s narrative poem, accompanied by pianist Lydia Brown. Just getting the chance to hear Respighi’s and Strauss’s musical rarities performed on the same day at two splendid settings—the Dock Street Theater (built in 1809) and the Grace Episcopal Church (completed in 1848)—made attending Spoleto worth it by itself.

Yelland, Brennan in My Cousin Rachel (photo: Julia Lynn)
The versatile Brennan was also onstage for the Gate Theatre’s thrilling dramatization of Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, which was as seductive as the eponymous title character. Shrewdly adapted by Joseph O’Connor and slickly staged by director Toby Frow, the drama kept its vice-like grip thanks to estimable acting across the board, led by Hannah Yelland as an Italian countess whose arrival at an Irish family’s estate won’t quash rumors that she was complicit in her husband’s suspicious death.

Checking out Charleston’s attractions was easy enough thanks to the layout of the eminently walkable city, whose narrow streets are lined by a ridiculous array of fine restaurants, high-end shopping, art galleries and historic buildings.

Fort Sumter (photo: Kevin Filipski)
For a history buff like me, a visit to Fort Sumter was a must. Located three miles offshore in Charleston Harbor, the place where the first shots of the Civil War were fired can only be reached by boat, and Fort Sumter Tours provides several trips daily from two locations. I boarded at Liberty Square, right behind the Fort Sumter Visitor’s Center, and was treated to a leisurely ride and narrated tour of the area before reaching the fort, which—though only a ghost of its former formidable self—remains a treasured artifact of the inglorious War Between the States.

Named for James Shoolbred Gibbes, Sr., who bequeathed funds for its founding, the Gibbes Museum of Art (which opened in 1905, six years after Gibbes’ death) has a manageable and enticing collection of paintings, sculptures and photographs. Highlights are Italian sculptor Pietro Rossi’s stunningly detailed Veiled Lady, Childe Hassam’s voluptuous painting April (The Green Gown), and the gorgeous stained-glass rotunda dome, which looks like a gigantic Tiffany lamp hanging overhead.

Rossi's sculpture Veiled Lady (photo: Kevin Filipski)
Walking through Charleston’s streets is also an immersion in American history, with historic houses everywhere—several are available for tours—along with remnants of the original fortifications of the Colonial era walled city, which date back to the early 1700s. Walking through the old Unitarian Church cemetery—whose many gravesites, some centuries old, are grown over by mosses, trees and plants of all types—is a ghostly but do-not-miss detour; a walk through another cemetery yielded the grave of one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution, John Rutledge.

For art, culture and history (as well as scrumptious food), Charleston has few equals.

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