Spoleto gives 'Medium' new power

The Spoleto Festival USA's hometown is all about heritage, right? Homes and churches built by the city's colonial and early American forebears still give the old town its charm. The fort that felt the first cannonballs of the Civil War continues to stand its ground offshore.

Spoleto found a moment during its opening weekend to note those events of April, 1861. But the festival is tending mainly to its own heritage.

It's commemorating the centennial of its founder's birth, even though Gian Carlo Menotti left in 1993 after a civil war with the festival's other leaders. It's tending to the art form that helped put Menotti and Spoleto on the map - opera - by giving the U.S. premiere of a year-old work from Europe.

The festival could easily have blown off Menotti's centennial. After all, he has been gone from Charleston for so long - even though he died only four years ago - that a birthday observance was hardly Spoleto's duty. But the festival is taking a longer view, obviously. It's looking back to Menotti via one of the operas that made him a music-world phenomenon by age 40.

"The Medium," the story of a scam artist who loses her grip on her scheme, ran for six months on Broadway in the late 1940s. (Can you imagine an opera accomplishing that now?) But today, opera companies have largely forgotten it.

Maybe its traditional setting - a seedy New York apartment of the late 1940s - makes the very idea of a pseudo-psychic strike people of today as cheesy, not the stuff of drama. But John Pascoe, the stage director and designer of Spoleto's revival, makes the story compelling again.

This is "The Medium" writ large. Pascoe keeps the story in the '40s but moves it to bomb-shattered postwar Europe. Madame Flora has set herself up in the remains of an industrial building whose steel beams hang twisted from above. When massive doors at the rear are opened, a battered skyline looms. Madame Flora becomes no mere crook, but an aging woman struggling for survival after Armageddon.

The people around her are facing their own struggles. Instead of casting Monica, Flora's daughter and accomplice, as the usual ingénue, Pasco makes her less petite - but more soulful. For the mute Toby, Flora's other accomplice, Pasco has bypassed the typical lithe dancer-type to enlist an actor who has magnetism but also a physical disability. Toby's every movement becomes charged.

In the opening performance Friday, Barbara Dever's Baba - or Madame Flora as her séance clients know her - was a hulking presence, vocally and physically. Yet as Baba grew unhinged by an unexplainable turn in her séance, Dever let her weakness and weariness show through. The more desperate Baba became, the more pitiful she was.

Jennifer Aylmer's ample voice and figure made Monica more womanly than she usually is. Monica's music, the opera's main thread of lyricism amid Baba's upheaval, gained a new soulfulness, and her scenes with the Toby were tinged with desire. Even though Menotti gave the mute no words to say or sing, actor Gregg Mozgala - who has cerebral palsy - spoke volumes through the yearning in his eyes and the struggling fervor of his movement.

The séance guests were touchingly played. And the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, led by Joseph Flummerfelt, made the music's tender side especially telling. Menotti's memory was wel served.


"Emilie" opens arrestingly: A woman sits at her writing desk, composing a letter to a paramour.

She's surrounded by candles, but they're not sitting next to her. Instead, they glimmer on video screens - irregular shards of fabric scattered through the entire space of the stage. A gentle cloud of sound from the orchestra, containing little by way of melody or rhythm but plenty of brooding, dark color, evokes the night as well as the foreboding the woman feels. With childbirth in the offing, she fears that her life's candle is about to burn out.

Thus does Finland's leading composer, Kaija Saariaho, introduce Emilie de Chatelet, a real-life intellectual and scandalous figure of 18th-century France.

Chatelet married young, but her husband eventually gave her free rein to have other romances - including a 10-year liaison with the author Voltaire. Overcoming the prejudice back then against educating women, Chatelet wrote about physics, astronomy and other subjects. She translated Sir Isaac Newton's "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy" into French - a task she's completing as we see her ponder her life in Saariaho's one-woman opera.

Chatelet was obviously a woman of many passions. But those only flicker intermittently in "Emilie." The opening's promise is in a way the opera's limitation: Saariaho's music centers on wisps, murmurs and mists from the orchestra. They hint at Emilie's state of mind, but don't make her reveries compelling or give the 75-minute opera a theatrical arc. The vocal part, meanwhile, serves mainly as a vehicle for delivering the words, less as a springboard for dramatic expression.

So, even though soprano Elizabeth Futral performs the role with full-throatedness and theatrical commitment, "Emilie" doesn't come alive. But stage director Marianne Weems and video designer Austin Switser create striking stage tableaux, especially when the videos envelop Chatelet with her equations, drawings and words.

Chamber music

No one would've expected violinist Geoff Nuttall, artistic director of the daily chamber concerts, to commemorate the firing on Fort Sumter 150 years ago. But he found a way: by spotlighting America's musical superstar of those days, the pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

Saturday morning, Nuttall brought on pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, who lit into Gottschalk's "The Union," a keyboard extravaganza based on the national anthem and other patriotic tunes. Her resounding performance could have been a celebration that national unity did, ultimately, survive the war.

Then there was another homage to Menotti: a performance of Schubert's Quintet in C major, a favorite of Menotti's that usually served in his day as the chamber series' finale. Nuttall's St. Lawrence String Quartet and cellist Alisa Weilerstein gave the epic work a performance that made it big and eloquent, not simply long. They gave it a youthful energy that served notice that Schubert was only about 30 when he wrote it, and they balanced that with a lyrical intensity that proved that his spiritual depth transcended age. And sometimes they just reveled in the music's sheer sweetness and lilt.