Lawrence Toppman

Spoleto pushes musical boundaries. Isn’t that why we go?

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (right) sings a Handel aria in the Bank of America Chamber Music Series at Spoleto Festival USA.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (right) sings a Handel aria in the Bank of America Chamber Music Series at Spoleto Festival USA.

Every time I make the 210-mile drive to Charleston for Spoleto Festival USA, I reach a point – usually halfway between Columbia and Charleston on I-26, during an inevitable stretch of rain – where I ask myself why I take this trip.

And every year, the reason why smacks me in the face soon after I get there. The epiphany came this year on a Saturday morning at 11:05, when Anthony Roth Costanzo took the Dock Street Theatre stage for the first program in the Bank of America Chamber Music Series.

I seldom choose to encounter countertenors. Their sound often seems hooty or blanched, ill-suited to any characters except otherworldly creatures (Oberon in Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or Orpheus in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Eurydice”). The English National Opera recently cast Costanzo as the title character in Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten,” about an Egyptian ruler who tried unsuccessfully to convert his people to monotheism.

Yet Costanzo shredded my preconceptions with the first notes of a Handel aria about a thwarted lover. He’s the complete package for an opera singer: dramatic conviction, a rich tone, agile coloratura backed by unobtrusive breath control, expressivity whether singing in full-voice or a near whisper. I enjoyed him the next day in selections from “Porgy and Bess,” including “Summertime.” He jokingly called that “the first song I ever sang (as a boy). It was wholly inappropriate then, and it is now.”

And that’s why we go to Spoleto: To have our eyes and ears snapped open.

Geoff Nuttall, first violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet and programmer for the chamber series, has fully cast off the mantle of longtime predecessor Charles Wadsworth. Concerts now run closer to 90 minutes than 75. Introductions to the pieces have more humor and joie de vivre and give us a deeper appreciation of the music.

Most importantly, he no longer feels compelled to provide a familiar masterwork – Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert – as a program anchor, the way Wadsworth did. The “big” piece on a program now might be a quartet by Leos Janacek or Samuel Barber’s sonata for cello. You may sail through totally uncharted waters, but the voyage is a joy.

Spoleto also has a habit of reviving early operas, and there the results depend mostly on your willingness to listen to composers who have sunk into obscurity for good reasons. This season’s secondary opera (after “Porgy and Bess,” the centerpiece of the festival in a wonderful production) is called “La Double Coquette.”

“Double” refers to the fact that two women vie for the attention of one man, at least until he vies for theirs. One woman has two identities, her own and a mustachioed dandy she invents to woo her former lover’s new partner. And there are two composers, Antoine Dauvergne from 1753 and Gérard Pesson from 2014. In the latter case, that’s one two many.

Fanny de Chaillé has directed this semi-staged piece with gusto, and the 12 members of the ensemble Amarillis match her on period instruments. Singers Robert Getchell, Maïlys de Villoutreys and especially Isabelle Poulenard (as the cross-dresser) sing zestfully.

Yet Dauvergne’s melodies aren’t forgotten gems, and Pesson’s “additions” to the one-act score (32 of them, totalling 37 minutes) include a trivial, dissonant prologue that doesn’t prepare us for the traditional score.

The novelty of references to selfies and inboxes soon wears off, and the refurbished libretto by Pierre Alferi includes lines of this nature: “I was so slight. I was so slightly. I was so slighted. I was but a slip.” Gertrude Stein would applaud, but I suspect few would join her.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

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