The Spoleto Festival USA is whole again.
For two years, the festival has done without one of its most powerful attractions: the Dock Street Theatre, whose wood-paneled coziness lends present-day performances an air of Charleston's 18th-century glory. It has had a long and extensive renovation. May 28, when the festival opens, audiences will finally return to it.
To commemorate the reopening, the festival will revive a long-neglected opera that was performed at the site in 1736. A longtime Spoleto favorite, the Gate Theatre from Ireland, will complement the Dock Street's charm with Noel Coward's wit in "Present Laughter." Another milestone for the theater: Its daily chamber-music concerts, Spoleto's most-attended component, will have a new leader, violinist Geoff Nuttall.
From May 28 through June 13, Spoleto will blanket locations across Charleston with music, theater, dance and art.
What better way to welcome back the Dock Street Theatre, Charleston's homage to 18th-century theaters, than to revive a hit from 18th-century Charleston?
In England, a spoof of highbrow Italian opera was packing audiences in. In Charleston in 1735, "Flora, An Opera" became the first opera performed in the United States - representing a breed called ballad opera, a mix of common-folk characters, double-entendre lyrics and tunes borrowed from the 18th-century pop culture. "Flora" was so popular that it was reprised the next year in a just-built venue: the original theater on the Dock Street site.
Spoleto is bringing "Flora" back. Neely Bruce, a composer and specialist in early American music, has fleshed out what was put down on paper in the 1700s - mainly the lyrics and the mere melodies. He thinks "Flora" and today's audiences are ready for each other.
"Early 21st-century theater is more like early 18th-century theater than most people realize," Bruce says. "You can basically say and do anything. You can be as bawdy as you like. You can present all kinds of questionable things on the stage, and people will laugh and have a good time."
Flora is a teenager who has just been orphaned. She wants to marry her sweetheart. But her guardian, who wants to get his hands on the money her parents left for her, has his own designs. The hijinks take off from there.
Bruce, who will lead the Spoleto performances from the harpsichord, had to compose a couple of numbers from scratch. But for the most part, his job was to build vocal and instrumental parts around the 18th-century melodies - which were as new to him as they will be to everyone else.
"When I started looking at these tunes," he says, "my heart leapt for joy. Because they're so interesting and so varied." They're the foundation of "short, rapier-like" numbers that are as vivid as they are brief.
Opera lovers who couldn't know a note of "Flora" going into it should still be comfortable, Neely says. With a guardian scheming to control his ward, the basic situation looks forward to Rossini's "Barber of Seville." High-born characters are the butt of jokes, as in Gilbert and Sullivan.
"Once people see it," Bruce says, "I'm convinced they're going to love it."
Spoleto will present two other operas - one new, the other dating back nearly as far as "Flora."
"Proserpina" by Wolfgang Rihm: This hourlong opera centers on the mythological goddess of the underworld, called Persephone by the Greeks. Rihm, who has been one of Germany's most prominent composers since the 1960s, based the opera on a drama by the poet Goethe. Spoleto will give the American premiere.
"Philemon and Baucis" by Joseph Haydn. The composer of the "Surprise" Symphony and "The Creation" is less well-known as an opera composer. Besides creating traditional operas, he created this for the puppet theater in his royal employer's castle. It's another mythological tale. The gods Jupiter and Mercury come to earth in disguise. Asking for help, they're rejected repeatedly until they meet an elderly couple who don't possess much, but generously share what little they have. The gods reward them. The Colla Marionettes from Italy, a Spoleto favorite, will collaborate with the festival's musical forces.
He's an actor. Famous. Self-centered. A womanizer. Enjoys taking nothing seriously. Then his liaisons start going awry.
That's all the plot that Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" needs. Its central character may not have much to laugh about, but audiences do.
"You think you can get through life in an easy, flippant and very self-satisfied way," says Alan Stanford, director of the Gate Theatre's staging. "Then life throws you a curveball."
"You've actually got to face realities. And... when people who are not used to facing realities are forced to face them, that can be terribly, terribly funny."
Especially when the collision was crafted by Coward. As playwright, songwriter and performer, he personified British sophistication and dry-martini wit. He cut an urbane figure on stages from 1920s London to 1960s Las Vegas. But his theatrical roots reached back to Oscar Wilde and comedies of centuries earlier.
Coward designed "Present Laughter" as a starring vehicle for himself, playing a circa-1940 matinee idol named Garry Essendine. As he often did, Stanford says, Coward modeled Garry's personality and relationships on his own.
Onstage and off, Garry - like Coward - is the star of his own show. "Why Garry Essendine is such a totally adorable character is that he is a total hedonist," Stanford says. "And yet, he's sad. Fundamentally, he's lonely. Because he'll never open up to anyone profoundly enough to make real contact. The world is riddled with people like that. In fact, most of us are (that way), when you get down to it."
Then Stanford stops himself. There's no need, he says, to be too intellectual. "Present Laughter," he says, is "just a brilliantly funny piece of its time and genre."
"Cinderella" by the Colla Marionettes: After finishing its performances of the Haydn opera a few days into the festival, the Italian puppet theater moves on to the beloved fairy tale.
"This is What Happens Next" by the Necessary Angel Theatre Company: Canadian actor and writer Daniel MacIvor returns for this solo show. Spoleto bills it as a combination of autobiography and philosophical musing that embraces topics including "divorce, addiction and the life of John Denver."
Taking over for Charles Wadsworth, the pianist-storyteller-jokester who had hosted Spoleto's chamber-music concert since Day 1, might be a hopeless task except for one thing: No sane person could expect the new artistic director to be another Wadsworth.
Geoff Nuttall, the new leader, had the benefit of watching Wadsworth at close hand. As first violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Spoleto's resident quartet for more than a decade, Nuttall has been literally at Wadsworth's side.
"You can never be as effortlessly funny or jovial or charming as Charles," Nuttall says.
"What you want to try to do is keep the spirit alive - keep his pure love of music and dislike of B.S. It's a good combination. I've always believed in that."
At the daily chamber concerts, Spoleto's most-attended component, audiences have long been familiar with Nuttall and the quartet's zesty performances - and with Nuttall's live-wire presence as first fiddle, all but dancing in his chair. Now, in the Wadsworth tradition, he'll get up and talk, introducing the music and performers at each of the 33 concerts.
Nuttall took up the violin at 8 years old, soon after his family moved from his native Texas to his mother's homeland of Canada. Since he was a youngster, Nuttall notes, he has been hooked on chamber music: He and his quartet's second violinist, Scott St. John, had a string quartet when Nuttall was 10 years old and St. John was 6. Reunited in the grown-up ensemble, they play more than 100 concerts a year and teach at Stanford University.
The roster for this year's chamber series will include the silver-toned soprano Dawn Upshaw, one of the biggest-name performers to take part. There'll be an even most prominent guest: Johannes Brahms.
Musician-technicians have gone to work with a brief, primitive recording Brahms made in the 1890s, playing one of his own Hungarian dances. They've cleared away the background noise and patterned a performance of the whole dance after Brahms' playing style in the excerpt. A digital mechanism enables a piano to perform it with no one at the keyboard.
"We'll have this piano onstage with Brahms playing a Brahms Hungarian dance," Nuttall says. "I've seen it. It's eerie. And it's incredible how great it sounds."
Spoleto Festival Orchestra: Conductor Emmanuel Villaume will lead two concerts. May 31, the group will pair the Richard Strauss showpiece "Also Sprach Zarathustra" - whose first 90 seconds were famously used in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" - with Ravel's "La Valse." June 6, the serenity of Richard Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" will counterpoint the vigor of Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony and the rowdiness of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8.
Jazz, world and popular music: The Ebony Hillbillies, who preserve the African-American tradition of string band music, will perform June 3. Bassekou Kouyate, a specialist in the ngoni - a centuries-old West African relative of the lute - will bring his band to Spoleto on June 9. The jazz roster includes Georgia-born singer Lizz Wright, British singer Norma Winstone, Brazilian singer Fabiana Cozza, Boston-based guitarist Julian Lage and Polish pianist Leszek Mozdzer. The German duo Die Roten Punke will give punk a comic twist.
It's no ordinary ballet company.
For decades, the Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has simultaneously spoofed and honored the heroic, poetic world of ballet - with men playing all the roles, right up to the (usually) most fragile heroines. On the festival's opening weekend, the company will finally make its Spoleto debut.
The roster holds names like Ida Nevasayneva and Vanya Verikosa. Nevasayneva's biography explains that "Comrade Ida became known as a heroine of the Revolution when, after effortlessly boureeing through a mine field, she lobbed a loaded toe shoe into a capitalist bank." She and the other ballerinas sport pointe shoes in the range of size 10.
The Trocks, as their fans call them, will perform some of their classics, including "Swan Lake" and the George Balanchine homage "Go for Barocco." Yes, the style includes slapstick and silliness. But there's more to it than that, artistic director Tory Dobrin says via e-mail.
"The company is very rooted in serious ballet history and technique," Dobrin says. "The audience expects to laugh when they walk into the theater. The audience walks away with an appreciation of how talented the dancers are as both comedy and ballet artists."
"Giselle" by the National Ballet of Georgia: Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili, who starred in "Swan Lake" at Spoleto in 2007, returns as another ballet heroine, Giselle - who comes back from the grave to save her sweetheart from evil spirits.
"Dance" by choreographer Lucina Childs: Childs' 1979 collaboration with composer Philip Glass is performed by her company. The work combines the onstage dancers with a filmed version of the choreography by visual artist Sol LeWitt.