Lawrence Toppman

Spoleto’s mysterious operas pull you in with powerful singing and imagery

The ballet-dancing “Amazons” show their bravery before battle in “Veremonda, L’Amazzone di Aragona” at Spoleto Festival USA.
The ballet-dancing “Amazons” show their bravery before battle in “Veremonda, L’Amazzone di Aragona” at Spoleto Festival USA. Julia Lynn Photography

The soprano stood motionlessly, a white ghost among gray shadows, facing away from us as a thin, high-pitched tone sounded unwaveringly through Memminger Auditorium. “There’s something wrong with the sound system,” ventured the man behind me. But as the tone grew, he realized he was hearing the first note of “Paradise Interrupted.”

That’s a cool thing about new operas at Spoleto Festival USA: He could have been right, because you never know what you’ll get.

And in the case of “Paradise” and “Veremonda, L’Amazzone di Aragonda” – which might be considered new, as no one has done it for 350 years – what you get this year are productions that remain visually stimulating, handsomely sung and (with a few exceptions) musically monochromatic.

“Veremonda” has lain dormant since the 17th century, because a useful performance edition didn’t exist until now and composer Francesco Cavalli lacked the melodic gift of his contemporary, Monteverdi.

Director Stefano Vizioli and set/costume designer Ugo Nespolo wisely make no sense of Giulio Strozzi’s libretto, which careens from broad comedy to bits of semi-serious drama to romances real, phony, comic and touching. The set, a mass of movable pieces and cut-outs, adds to the giddiness; female soldiers prance around in knee-high boots and silver lamé-style armor.

The title queen leads this trembling “Amazon” army in a secret mission against the Moors, who have occupied Gibraltar. Vivica Genaux, so memorable in Opera Carolina’s 2006 “Cinderella,” doesn’t get much chance to show her agile coloratura voice here; only about 20 percent of the singing consists of arias, but she acts up a comic storm.

You can read the opera as protofeminism. Our sympathies go to the women, especially the Moorish queen (Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli) who converts to marry a Spanish general. The male figures of authority, the foppish king (Andrey Nemzer) and the general (Raffaele Pe), are sung by countertenors who’d have been castrati in Cavalli’s day. (You get the point.)

The one-act, 85-minute “Paradise” focuses on a strong woman, too: A lone, nameless character who has lost a lover and seeks fulfillment in other ways.

Qian Yi, who starred in “The Peony Pavilion” at Spoleto in 2004, sings Huang Ruo’s music; it suspends time as she interacts with four Elements, a male vocal quartet who summon wind, light, insects, a wolf and other natural forces. (Ethereal countertenor John Holiday led this group beautifully.)

Until the last 20 minutes, when the music achieves a repetitive, Philip Glass-like pulse, its combination of Western and Eastern instruments creates a dreamlike formlessness. We’re free to study motions by Qian Yi’s eloquent hands, Lihe Xiao’s atmospheric lighting and the set, which rises before us. (Jennifer Wen Ma is credited as director-designer, Matthew Hilyard as set designer.)

Attendants in black garb erect an elongated garden of paper and raise a huge lotus in which the woman tries to immerse herself. (The opera has a Buddhist theme of renunciation.) As we watch stage marvels, we’re reminded again that music is just one element in this multifaceted art form.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Paradise Interrupted,’ ‘Veremonda’

“Paradise” runs through Sunday at Memminger Auditorium, “Veremonda” through June 5 at Dock Street Theatre. Tickets cost $35-$55 for “Paradise,” $25-$80 for “Veremonda.” Details: 843-579-3100 or spoletousa.org.

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