Spoleto operas: short, visually stimulating, vibrantly sung

The point of going to Spoleto Festival U.S.A. is to see work you’re never likely to find anywhere else, at least in this fashion. The three operas of the 2013 season, a double-bill of obscure Italian one-acts and the U.S. premiere of a Japanese ghost story, all have the benefit of novel stagecraft and terrific singing – even if they’re likely to disappear again as quickly as they came.

The short piece stays longest in memory: Umberto Giordano’s “Mese Mariano,” which lasts just over half an hour. A woman comes to a convent school on Easter Sunday to see the son she had out of wedlock, who was driven away from home by another man who married her. The nuns can’t bring themselves to tell her the boy has just died. So after hearing her pour out her guilt, they send her away, telling her to come back another day.

This 1910 opera works like a short story, capturing one moment and one mood simply and beautifully. The music sometimes sounds like outtakes from a Giacomo Puccini opera, but Jennifer Rowley unleashed a powerfully moving voice as the guilt-ridden mom.

Puccini’s first opera, “Le Villi” from 1884, lasts perhaps twice as long and comes from the German legend about the Wilis, spirits of girls who died of love and haunt the men who betrayed them. Soprano Rowley returned as Anna, singing as vibrantly as before in the role of a cast-aside sweetheart.

Tenor Dinyar Vania produced an equally big tone as Roberto, who went to the city to claim an inheritance and was seduced by “a siren” during her “offensive orgies.” (Yes, that’s what the supertitles said.) He comes back to his hometown, broken and remorseful, and the maidens’ spirits hound him to death.

Here director Stefano Vizioli went wrong. He had some brilliant visual ideas: Angry spirits pressed faces or hands against a white scrim, looking ghastly. But he decided they were inmates in an insane asylum, a sort of “living dead.” Where supertitles spoke of forests, we saw clinical walls; the “ghosts” were all too human; instead of an airy ballet, we got demented women writhing and twitching, as Roberto somehow stumbled into their madhouse. The show would have worked better as pure fantasy or pure realism, but combining them nullified the drama.

No such problem affected “Matsukaze,” done like a Japanese Noh (as in “slow”) drama.

A wandering monk, hearing of two sisters who died of love centuries ago, encounters their spirits. They confirm they pined away after a poet left them in their seaside cottage and ask the monk to pray for peace for their troubled souls. (“Matsukaze” means “wind in the pines,” and “pine” carries both meanings in Japan.)

Pureum Jo, another soprano with a big, emotive voice, communicated intense, despairing ecstasy in the title role. Chris Barreca’s otherworldly set was built around a vast pine tree, which seemed to be made of feathery glass and flew into the air symbolically at the end.

But Toshio Hosokawa’s music, which blends Japanese instruments with western ones in the style of atonal German expressionism, doesn’t contain one sustained melody. It evaporated in memory like the foam of an ocean wave leaving a beach.