Over the last decade, Spoleto Festival USA has boosted its profile by presenting American premieres of contemporary operas from Europe, reconstructions of lost classics that have lain dormant for centuries, big ballet companies with international reputations and hefty works by the most prominent living composers.
But sometimes innovation shouts, and sometimes it whispers. The 43rd annual festival, which runs May 24-June 9 around Charleston, has none of those splashy offerings, but its 140-plus performances encompass a remarkably wide range of experiences. (Get full ticket and contact information at spoletousa.org.)
The schedule actually begins May 23 in Dock Street Theatre with an “audience choice” preview by Shakespeare’s Globe, in which the eight-person cast performs a play voted on that evening by theatergoers. (Your options are “Twelfth Night,” “The Comedy of Errors” and “Pericles,” all of which these Londoners will do later on specified occasions.)
The fest ends June 9 in Riverfront Park with a concert by soul/gospel singer Curtis Harding, who has been given the slot more commonly allotted to a band. And in between … well, if I had to pick a dozen things to see, they’d be these:
“Salome” – For the first time in 10 years, the lineup includes just one opera: Richard Strauss’ 100-minute, one-act adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s overwrought play, improved by Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto. Directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser staged this opera here in 1987 — in a 1930s German hothouse, if memory serves — but will now do a contemporary version with Melanie Henley Heyn, Paul Groves and Kostas Smoriginas in the leads.
“Pay No Attention to the Girl” – Five actors from Target Margin Theater interweave stories about the sexes taken from “One Thousand and One Nights,” the collection of Islamic folk tales from Turkey, Persia, India and other nations. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Caracalla Dance Theatre sets pieces from that same collection to western classical and Arabian music in “One Thousand and One Nights.”
“Letter to a Friend in Gaza” – I like multimedia presentations, so I’m intrigued by veteran Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai’s idea: Four actors (two Palestinians, two Israelis) consider the foundations of the conflict at the Israel-Gaza border. The piece combines film, music and poetry in a tribute to French writer Albert Camus’s “Letters to a German Friend,” another statement about links between two warring cultures.
“Roots” – The English theater company 1927 has come here three previous times with inventive (if frequently baffling) combinations of live action, complex musical scores and hand-drawn animation. This show delves into rare folktales (those are big this spring) “that offer a glimpse into imaginations from a pre-industrialized age,” accompanied by a soundscape featuring “Peruvian prayer boxes, donkey jaws, violins, and musical saws.” Ummmm…why not?
“Circa” – Spoleto USA almost always offers one extraordinary piece of physical theater, and this looks like it: The three-person acrobatic troupe from Australia (which sold out here in 2011) blends circus skills with dance theater, this time in a piece set to Bach (played by a live violinist) mingled with a pre-recorded electronic soundtrack.
“Path of Miracles” – British composer Joby Talbot’s hour-long, a cappella work (sung by Westminster Choir) was inspired by the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Pilgrims have walked Saint James’ Road for 1,200 years as an act of worship and atonement, and John La Bouchardière (who directed John Adams’ “El Niño” here in 2014) makes this into a music theater event.
Bank of America Chamber Music Series – The full program won’t be announced until April, but you can’t go wrong with any concert. Programmer Geoff Nuttall celebrates his 10th anniversary with two premieres: composer-in-residence Paul Wiancko’s quintet, played by oboist James Austin Smith and Nuttall’s own St. Lawrence String Quartet, and pianist-composer Stephen Prutsman’s work for string quartet and soundtrack.
Compagnie Hervé Koubi – Choreographer Bill T. Jones’ work can be brilliant or bombastic, and the descriptions of his “Analogy Trilogy” for this year’s festival leave me cold. In the absence of classical dance, I’d go instead with Koubi, in which 13 male dancers from Africa and Europe blend street forms — capoeira, breakdancing, and martial arts — with modern dance.
Esperanza Spalding – Spoleto has rightly prided itself on its jazz lineups, which this year will include the 17-piece Dafnis Prieto Big Band, Carla Bley, David Virelles, a Geri Allen Tribute Quintet (honoring the pianist who died last year) and the sax-piano duo of Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson. Bassist-vocalist Spalding, who won a best new artist Grammy eight years ago, will play outdoors in The Cistern at College of Charleston, a lovely place to hear her.
Punch Brothers – Speaking of The Cistern, she’ll be followed there by this eclectic quintet: mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjo player Noam Pikelny and violinist Gabe Witcher. They play mostly bluegrass, but Thile has always thrown curves into his concerts and recordings, so keep an open mind.
“Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem” – I usually skip shows at Gibbes Art Museum, but I’d make time for this traveling exhibition out of New York. It offers multiple approaches to art by African-American men and women from the 1930s through the present, including such heavyweights as Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Thornton Dial and Charlotte native Romare Bearden. It stays up through Aug. 18.
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