Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Several critiques of what I heard at Spoleto USA

While in Charleston last week, I took in a production of Kurt Weill's opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, two chamber music concerts, a symphony concert featuring works by Ravel and Brahms, and The Constant Wife, a theater piece by Somerset Maugham.

The first performance I experienced (May 30th) was Mahagonny at the Sotille Theatre, which seats 800. Spoleto brought this production of Mahagonny from Opera de Lausanne, and Spoleto's charismatic music director Emmanuel Villaume conducted both productions. Villaume and his forces did well to conquer this challenging work, which contains a flurry of scenes changes, jabs and uppercuts at our capitalistic society, and artists who are equally adept at singing and acting.

The star of the show was Richard Brunner in the role of Jimmy Mahoney. Brunner's easily projected his voice over the orchestra and could throttle it back when needed to blend with the other singers. His diction was superb and his presence commanding -- even when he hung lifeless in the last act.

As the prostitute Jenny Hill, Tammy Hensrud sang strongly but needed more bite to create a more compelling character. Karen Huffstodt's Leokadja Begbick had plenty of verve, but Huffstodt's vibrato was out of control.

Beauregard Palmer made an outstanding Fatty, one of Begbick's con men. Timothy Nolen adroitly created the other con man, Trinity Moses, but Nolen couldn't always be heard when the orchestra played loudly. As Alaska Wolf Joe, Kirk Eichelberger displayed a beautiful bass baritone voice and was totally convincing. John Fanning used his big baritone to great effect as the avuncular yet unfeeling Moneybags Billy.

The cardboard-like cartoon cutouts of a an old truck, an ocean liner, and the hotel facade crisply defined the transitory location of Mahagonny, the city of gold. The disco ball and loud, clown-like costumes infused the story with a garish atmosphere. Lighting by Christophe Forey was top notch, and directions by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser were superb.

The orchestra played at a high level throughout, but some of the tempi seemed to drag. For example, Villaume took the "Alabama Song" at a leisurely pace. This took some momentum away from the production, but all in all, it was a winner.


The following day, I heard two chamber music concerts at the Dock Street Theatre, which has a seating capacity of 436. Each concert lasted about 75 minutes, depending upon how long pianist and emcee Charles Wadsworth chose to speak. Wadsworth's charming personality and witty commentary add a dash of spice to each program. He is a necessary component, announcing each program from the stage. That is, attendees are not given a list of what is to be played or who is performing. This style of presentation gives the concert a carefree and impromptu ambiance. Oh, in the lobby there's a small blackboard (or greenboard) with the selections written in chalk. Unless you scribble that on a sheet of paper or into your Blackberry, you must listen up to what Wadsworth says.

The 11 am concert on May 31 featured a variety of musicians and works. The first piece was Debussy's Première Rhapsodie, arranged by clarinetist Todd Palmer. Joining Palmer were flutiest Tara Helen O'Connor, harpist Catrin Finch, bassist Edward Allman, and the members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Palmer guided this piece with silky smooth playing, and the ensemble captured the spirit of Debussy with evocative phrasing and a lush sound. It was outstanding.

Next, soprano Courtenay Budd sang lulabies by Dvorák ("Ukolébavka") and by Canteloube ("Bresairola"), which she has recorded in a recently released CD entitled "Sleep is behind the door" (the proceeds of which will benefit disaster relief). For the Dvorák number, Budd teamed up with Wadsworth. For the Canteloube piece, she was accompanied by O'Connor, violinist Daniel Phillips, and cellist Christopher Costanza of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Both pieces were exquisite. It didn't matter if you knew what Budd was singing, she instinctively seems to be able to draw an audience into the realm of each lullaby.

Before the St. Lawrence String Quartet launch into Schumann's String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Wadsworth teased violinist Geoff Nuttall about his fashionable gray shoes and his second-hand clothing. But after the laughter died down, Nuttall and his colleagues played the heck out of this pieces, adding fine nuances in phrasing, volume, and rhythm. They were completely together, playing cleanly, crisply, and artistically.

Of special interest during the SLSQ's performance was the super animated style of Nuttall. He looks like a nervous cat or someone who is desperately trying to control his bladder. He'll raise one foot then the other, arch his back, put his body in all sorts of contortions, and all the while he gets a perfect sound. It looks impossible!

The concert finished with an octet version (again by Palmer) of Carl Maria von Weber's Invitation to the Dance. Besides Palmer, ensemble consisted of O'Conner (who doubled on the piccolo), Finch, Allman, and the SLSQ. Palmer's delightful arrangement received a wildly enthusiastic ovation from the audience, and everyone left the theater in high spirits.


At 1 pm, the same day, I returned to the Dock Street Theatre to hear another chamber music concert. The program began with Wadsworth, and cellist Andres Díaz accompanying Budd in works by Handel and Allesandro Scarlatti. The selections were "Tone sanft," from Handel's Alexander's Feast, and "Sono guerriera ardita," an aria from one of Scarlatti's operas. Again Budd sang brilliantly, and her bright voice was matched beautifully by her colleagues.

Daniel Phillips and pianist Wendy Chen followed with a performance of Dvorák's Four Romantic Pieces (Opus 75). Phillips and Chen played terrifically -- as if they had been performing together since childhood. Well we know that couldn't have happened because Phillips was a soloist at Spoleto USA in 1977 and Chen was just a toddler at that time.

Chen, Díaz, and violinist Chee-Yun ended the concert with a wonderful performance of Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1, in B-Flat. I thought that Díaz might have had a problem with a couple of notes, but that didn't disturb the over-all effect of this masterpiece.


Again the same evening I heard Emmanuel Villaume conduct the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra in a concert of Ravel and Brahms. The program was played without intermission, so it began at 8 pm and ended shortly after 9 pm, allowing concert goers to end a bit more of the evening than they would normally expect.

The festival orchestra is composed of very accomplished young musicians. It looked as if no one was older than 25 or so. In any case, everyone was bowing furiously when I took my seat about 10 minutes before the concert began. That the orchestra played an extra Tribute concert to Menotti (Spoleto's founder who died in February) may have resulted in reduced rehearsal time.

However, when Villaume took his place on the podium, the musicians were ready. They opened the concert with Ravel's Ma Mère l'oye (Mother Goose) Suite. Everyone excelled at this piece, but the concertmaster, the principal violist, and the principal clarinetist were outstanding. (I couldn't find their names listed anywhere.) Also, the brass section and the woodwind section were radiant.

The performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 seemed to start a little slow out of the gate but surprisingly gained a lot of momentum and ended triumphantly. Some of the ends of phrases didn't seem quite as crisp as they should have been, but Villaume energetic leadership captured the ensemble's imagination and put a smile of the lips of the audience at the end.

The beep beep beep of a truck that was backing up in the street outside the concert hall marred several soft and delicate minutes of the Ravel. Unfortunately, one of the walls of the Sotille leads directly to the street. There is no buffer to loud street noise. I thought that I heard a police siren at the beginning of the fourth movement of the Brahms, but whatever I heard passed by quickly.


On Friday, June 1st, I saw an incredible production of The Constant Wife in a production by The Gate Theatre of Dublin, Ireland. This play (written by W. Somerset Maugham) explore the problem of infidelity in humorous and thought provoking way. The cast was very strong, but it was the over-the-top performance of Simon Coates who puts the play into outer orbit. As the non-monogamous husband, John Middleton, Simon jumps around like someone who is coming out of his skin when he finds out this his wife is going to assert her economic and sexual independence. But Simon does it in such a funny and convincing way that he wins over the audience, and at the same time, he delivers his lines perfectly. I would like to see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival take on this play some day in the future.

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