Opera At Spoleto Festival: Many Styles And Vintages

Production of Verdi's Aida performed with marionettes.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — In its first weekend, the Spoleto Festival USA presented four operatic productions embodying an enormous variety of styles and vintages.

The works ranged from Christoph Willibald Gluck's 1779 opera Iphigenie en Tauride to this year's revised version of The Silver River by composer Bright Sheng and playwright David Henry Hwang (best known as the author of M. Butterfly).

Originally composed for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival two years ago, The Silver River was performed for the first time with an enlarged cast and substantially revised words and music.

"We consider it a premiere," Hwang said during a panel discussion in the Dock Street Theatre. "We have rewritten about 40 percent of the words and about half of the music. Resources were limited for the first production; we felt we could go further with it."

Iphigenie and The Silver River were the main rarities in this 24th edition of the festival, which each year comes up with unfamiliar but noteworthy stage works. More conventional material, although delivered with an innovative spin, were two operas by Giuseppe Verdi: Luisa Miller and Aida, an extravaganza in miniature performed by marionettes, including marionette camels and elephants in the popular triumphal march.

The music for Aida was provided by an historic recording with Arturo Toscanini conducting. "Parts of it are very cute, but it is really for adults," one member of the audience said.

Two of the three opera productions with living human performers, Luisa Miller and Iphigenie en Tauride, spotlighted several young singers who seem to be at the takeoff point for major international careers — a perennial specialty of the Spoleto Festival.

The Silver River, based on a 5,000-year-old Chinese legend, was stylistically eclectic to an extreme, dramatically and musically. And perhaps for this reason it was the hottest ticket in the festival. Before each performance, crowds of prospective patrons stood at the entrance to the Garden Theatre, where it was performed, asking ticket-holders if they had any spares for sale.

Unique Staging Of Chinese Myth

In future productions of The Silver River it won't be easy to match this one due to unusual casting and staging requirements, not to mention the brilliant costume designs of Anita Yavich.

The river in its title (a Chinese term for the Milky Way) runs across the stage and is bathed in by a goddess — the Weaver, ninth daughter of the legendary Jade Emperor. Her job is to weave new stars for the Milky Way. At one crucial point in the plot, after she falls in love with a mortal and forgets her duties, the onstage river dries up.

This role is performed wordlessly — the goddess expresses herself, eloquently, by playing the pipa, the ancient Chinese lute — and two performers are required for it: a woman who is a brilliant pipa player and looks like a goddess (as Wu Man does in this production) and a dancer who performs the required stage actions while the pipa player sits baring her soul in a stream of pentatonic melodies. Ideally, the dancer should have a physical resemblance to the player, as Muna Tseng does in this production.

Also requiring double casting is the role of the Weaver's lover, a cowherd who plays the flute. Operatic baritone Michael Chioldi and flutist David Fedele also have a physical resemblance. Fedele's duets with Man are a musical highlight of the production, a blending of Western and Chinese musical styles that aptly symbolizes the barrier-transcending love of a goddess and a human.

Besides the four performers needed to portray the two lovers, The Silver River requires a performer skilled in American theatrical styles for the spoken role of the Golden Buffalo, a goddess who narrates and takes part in the story.

This role is brilliantly filled by actress Karen Kandel, whose witty running commentary makes the complex and exotic goings-on clear to the audience. A major contribution to the show's exotic atmosphere is the role of the Jade Emperor, colorfully sung and acted in Chinese by Jamie Guan, using the traditional gestures and melodic styles of Peking opera.

The fact that this jumble of styles comes across the footlights with a solid, integrated impact is a tribute to the skills of all participants, including the composer, who conducted the performance with a clear sense of Chinese and Western styles.

Venue Lends Itself To Production

Luisa Miller dates from 1849 and shows Verdi on the brink of the breakthrough to his mature style in the 1850s — notable for Rigoletto and other masterpieces. It is musically uneven but, at its best, looks ahead to some of his greatest moments, and for Verdi fans it offers the spectacle of the composer finding his definitive voice.

The Spoleto production, ascetically produced with massive, blank walls as the essential part of the decor, emphasizes the dimension of psychological melodrama, with stark lighting that often makes the larger-than-life shadows of the singers come across as the real players in the drama. It is expertly cast throughout, with a particularly strong performance by Sondra Radvenovsky in the title role.