MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Trying to rethink Madame Butterfly at Seattle Opera

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Alexey Dolgov (Pinkerton) and Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San); photo by Jacob Lucas

My review for Bachtrack of the new Madame Butterfly production opening Seattle Opera’s season:

How well do we really know Madame Butterfly? So iconic that, for some, it’s the archetype of the art form itself, Puccini’s mega-popular opera has recently been coming in for renewed scrutiny.

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Filed under: Puccini, review, Seattle Opera

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Alcina Casts Surprising Spells in Santa Fe

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Elsa van den Heever (Alcina) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

My review of Santa Fe Opera’s Alcina for Bachtrack:

George Bernard Shaw crystallised longstanding biases when he declared that Handel’s operas were “only stage concerts for shewing off the technical skill of the singers”. David Alden, a longstanding maverick director and hero of Regie-philes, made his reputation in part through his striking interpretations of Handel. If anything, his production of Alcina, which he first staged at the Opéra National de Bordeaux in 2012 (with many of the same singers), pushes too far in the opposite direction to the theatrically static fossil of Shaw’s stereotype.

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Filed under: directors, Handel, review, Santa Fe Opera

Pecking Order: The Golden Cockerel a Crowing Success at Santa Fe Opera

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TIM MIX (KING DODON) PHOTO CREDIT: PAUL HORPEDAHL FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

Even though it’s still more or less a rarity for American audiences nowadays, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel can seem surprisingly — indeed, unnervingly — familiar to audiences enduring the current political moment.

At least that’s one of the main premises of the new production Santa Fe Opera is presenting this season (a co-production with Dallas Opera). Also marking its company debut, Rimsky’s final opera (better known by its French title, Le coq d’or) actually has a direct American connection as regards its source.

The libretto by Vladimir Belsky is an adaptation of a verse fairy-tale by Pushkin, who got the story from none other than Washington Irving (specifically, from The Legend of the Arabian Astrologer, one of his Tales of the Alhambra inspired by the American writer’s travels in Spain).

Despite those far-flung historical connections, Cockerel — the final opera by the prolific Rimsky (completed in 1907) — posed a trenchant contemporary critique of Tsar Nicholas II that, especially in the aftermath of the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, was obvious enough to cause trouble with the censors. Rimsky died before the opera could be premiered (in 1909 in Moscow).

 

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VENERA GIMADIEVA (QUEEN OF SHEMAKHA) AND TIM MIX (KING DODON) PHOTO CREDIT: KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

Cockerel involves an odd, both beguiling and baffling combination of dramaturgical registers such that it’s a challenge to stage the work outside its Russian context, which boasts a rich performance tradition of Rimsky’s operas (despite or even because of the composer’s posthumous hurdles with Soviet cultural authorities).

The framework is standard-issue fairy-tale: in a land long ago, King Dodon hopes to put an end to the threat of warfare from beyond his borders and even considers building a wall. As he seeks advice, a mysterious Astrologer presents him with the ideal solution: a beautiful Golden Cockerel that only needs to be perched atop a building to keep watch. It acts as a kind of early-warning system, allowing the King to indulge in his love of sleep and food worry-free.

But when the warning comes, he goes on a pre-emptive war, only to be seduced by his enemy, the Queen of Shemakha. She cajoles him into a marriage to gain his kingdom, and they return to the capital. But the Astrologer had extracted a promise that the grateful Tsar would give him anything he requested. Naturally, the Astrologer now demands the new Queen for himself. The King reacts violently, and the Golden Cockerel fatally pecks him.

That’s just the scaffolding. Infused into the fairy-tale story line are elements of political satire, allegory, Orientalism, and intoxicating late Romanticism. The Golden Cockerel even became an inspiration for modernist trends thanks to the Paris production by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company in 1914, which put a distancing wedge between the music and story by keeping the singers to the sides while dancers enacted the roles.

Director Paul Curran and the creative team accentuate the satirical elements with a kind of broad comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in a Saturday Night Live skit.  Gary McCann (responsible for the set and costumes) imprisons Tsar Dodon in a fat suit, his jello-y bulges on display when he snoozes in his long red underwear (though he is hilariously undersized for a throne many times too big for him).
Near the culmination, this master of blustering incompetence appears decked out in a modern suit with a flaming red tie (yes, that‘s the blowhard he’s meant to evoke, tho Dodon possesses certain charming aspects that undo the implied comparison). His new Queen is wearing a smart white pantsuit. 

The clowning and pratfalls grow a bit tiresome, however, and make for a dragging first act. In the second, when Dodon heads off to the Queen’s neighboring land and is engaged by her entrancing musical and choreographic come-on, the shtick really begins to wear thin.

By way of compensation, the visuals added something of the missing note of mystery, fantasy, and even potentially sinister undertow. McCann’s costumes, alluding to the Ballets Russes era, exploded with color and folk exuberance, as well as the trendy Orientalism of that period. Enhanced by Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting, his set design relied on a large wavy metal curve and Constructivist-inspired swirls (a way of paying homage to the opera’s Modernist connections).

The curve was used for Driscoll Otto’s projections, whose beautifully intriguing imagery included opulent patterns and disturbingly surreal dreamlike sequences — dreams and the psyche figure heavily in the story — though the projections for the Golden Cockerel itself were surprisingly unimpressive (and difficult to see because of the angling of the large curve). During last night’s performance (July 28), a dramatic lightning storm provided perfectly counterpointed timing for the dark “invasion” scene, into which the Queen of Shemakha enters, Kundry-like, ready to disarm the enemy with her own brand of warcraft.

The cast ranged from adequate to wonderful. After Eric Owens bowed out of the assignment, baritone Tim Mix took on the role of King Dodon. He showed a delightful sense of comic timing and sang with musical intelligence but lacked power and needed depth. As his main general Commander Polkan, bass Kevin Burdette was scene-stealingly funny, a very effective character singer who gets a nasty comeuppance.  

As Dodon’s sons, who end up slaughtering each other in battle, Richard Smagur and Jorge Espino underscored the fatal hereditary mix of arrogance and idiocy. Singing offstage, Kasia Borowiec lent her lovely soprano to the Cockerel’s (a-little-too-repetitive) crowings. (The Cockerel is conceived as a female role in the tradition of so many other ornithological characterizations, despite the bird’s sex.)

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VENERA GIMADIEVA (THE QUEEN OF SHEMAKHA) AND TIM MIX (KING DODON) PHOTO CREDIT: KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

The star of the evening was the Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva in the virtuosic role of the Queen of Shemakha. Rimsky lavishes his most alluring, exquisitely ornamented music on her (including in the number “Hymn to the Sun”). Aside from some lingering insecurities with intonation, Gimadieva handled her gorgeous coloratura with nuance and panache, executing some breathtakingly tapered notes. She also showed graceful and arresting stage presence, a delightful foil in her dancing to the fat-footed, bloated King as she wraps him around her finger. 

Also superb was alto Meredith Arwady as Amelfa as a loyal royal servant, a substitute Mom to the King whose voice by itself is like a character, immense, sturdy, amber, and richly reverberant in the astonishingly low notes Rimsky writes for the part.

He also writes a double-take-inducing high E for the high-flying tenor Astrologer, who frames the opera as an it’s-just-make-believe-after-all mise-en-abyme. Barry Banks, brandishing moody sunglasses and an Andy Warhol air, suggested a hint of the eerie, E.T.A. Hoffmann-esque in his portrayal, contributing another layer that otherwise tended to be sacrificed in favor of the satirical.

Actually, there was another star of the evening: conductor Emmanuel Villaume, who coaxed consistently expressive, multi-hued, luminous playing for Rimsky’s scintillating score. He clearly treasures its shimmering beauties and gave the musicians time to indulge in the soloistic writing, but judiciously, and in ways that enhanced the theatricality onstage.  

If you go: Santa Fe Opera’s production of The Golden Cockerel by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov continues through Aug. 18. Information and reservations here.

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May — all rights reserved

Filed under: review, Santa Fe Opera

The Apple of His Eye: Review of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

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EDWARD PARKS (STEVE JOBS) AND JONAH SORENSON (YOUNG STEVE JOBS) PHOTO CREDIT: KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

My review of the new Mason Bates/Mark Campbell opera is now out on Musical America:

SANTA FE, N.M.—“Hope or hype? … Score or snore?” Early into The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the snappy questions pour out in rapid-fire succession from an ensemble attending the first public announcement of the iPhone in 2007.

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Filed under: American opera, Mark Campbell, Mason Bates, Musical America, review, Santa Fe Opera

At Play and In Flight: Some Recent Summer Festival Concerts with Seattle Chamber Music Society

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composer-vocalist Lisa Bielawa; photo by Daniel Clark

The Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival has now reached its midway point, with a delicious program last night devoted to French music (in honor of Bastille Day). The Taiwanese-American violinist Paul Huang in particular stood out (in the free prelude concert) with an account of César Franck’s Violin Sonata that was simultaneously passionate and also lucidly constructed. Paige Roberts Molloy matched Huang’s intensity with her strong keyboard personality.

Molloy played a big role in the main course itself, teaming with Max Levinson for a pair of four-hands piano delights: Debussy’s early Petite Suite and Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants (source of the orchestral Petite Suite we heard not long ago from the Seattle Symphony and Morlot).

The duo teased out the textural richness of the four-hands writing and also enjoyed teasing the audience with the ample humor of music-as-mimicry (especially in Bizet’s sonic imaginings of children at play). A similar angle, but magnified to a small ensemble of ten players, enlivened the concluding work, Saint-Saëns’ Carnaval des Animaux. Each of the composer’s clever vignettes was neatly etched and characterized, from the two-note joke of “Le coucou au fond des bois” (Anthony McGill as luxury casting on clarinet) to lightly shaded mystery in “Aquarium.”

Together with the less-often-heard piano suites, the hyper-familiar Saint-Saëns acquired a fresh coat of childlike wonder — or the wonder resulting from grown artists reimagining and trying to recapture something of that wonder. In that context, it also provoked some interesting questions about this particular subfield of “program music.” In contrast, say, to a grandiose R. Strauss tone poem, is it the miniaturism here — in terms of instrumentation as well as size — that makes these pieces tend to be more “about” a textural gesture?

Those works in turn made for an unusual context in which to revisit the String Quartet in F major by another great poet of childhood, Maurice Ravel. Huang, playing first violin, was joined by violinist Tessa Lark, Cynthia Phelps on viola, and Ronald Thomas on cello. They gave an engaging performance that paid special attention to Ravel’s fascinating rhythmic language, with remarkably vivid ensemble playing for the second and fourth movements.  They also succeeded in balancing structural clarity with a drive and boldness that, from less-experienced musicians, might have risked murkiness.

Fictional Migrations

This Summer Festival week began with the excitement of a world premiere. The program on Monday (10 July) unveiled this year’s commission by the SCMS Commissioning Club: Fictional Migrations by Lisa Bielawa. An important and original voice among today’s composers, she is also a performer and has toured as a vocalist with the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The prolific Bielawa, born in San Francisco in 1968, has recently been earning widespread attention in the contemporary-music scene for her ambitious, trail-blazing, highly collaborative Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s AccuserIt’s a “made-for-TV-and-online opera” in a dozen episodes focusing on a gifted teenage girl who becomes obsessed with female visionaries across history.

Somehow among her many other projects, Bielawa found time to write the 12-minute Fictional Migrations. The fact that the piece is scored for flute, French horn, and piano is your first clue to its unusual character. Bielawa pointed out that she was initially intrigued — if not intimidated — by the challenge inherent in working with such an apparently “absurd” sonic combination.

Her approach is to avoid futile attempts at “homogenizing” these three instruments into something tamer but rather to accentuate, even exaggerate, their distinctive characters. In her introductory note, Bielawa points out that she also wanted to develop some “reveries” prompted by another composer she deeply admires, Olivier Messiaen. The latter was a household staple when she was growing up, since both of her musician parents were fans of the French master. Fictional Migrations is dedicated to the memory of Messiaen (in observance of the 25th anniversary of his death).

The most obvious Messiaenic influence is Bielawa’s allusion to birds and birdsong, a signature inspiration for Messiaen’s musical language. She writes that she had in mind the story of  Alcyone from ancient Greek mythology “who, thinking her lover Ceyx is dead, throws herself into the sea, only to find herself transformed into a bird, flying towards him (also now in bird form).”

Bielawa also notes an impetus from “speculative fiction and the new surge of minority and feminist writers who are embracing this form — a cousin of science fiction that poses the question ‘What if?’ in relation to current cultural narratives.”

Fictional Migrations is not a piece of straight-ahead program music. Bielawa has instead constructed a “fictional” encounter among these very different sonorities. There’s not even an obvious throughline correspondence between the instruments and characters of the Alcyone story. Rather, Bielawa translates the pattern of Ovidian metamorphosis into instrumental terms: the flute and horn in particular at times play “themselves” but more often than not seem to be attempting to transcend their identities, to become something else — and to negate the gendered stereotypes of how they should sound. Bielawa shows that process at the very beginning, with an aleatoric section for piccolo at its most aggressive and shrill.

What’s more, the writing is hyper-virtuosic and highly individual for each instrument, so they are not encouraged to fuse into pleasant but bland “harmony.” The players were all first-rate. Lorna McGhee’s piccolo/flute conveyed an astonishing array of moods and affects, brilliantly articulated, while hornist Jeffrey Fair never lost his golden tone amid the dangerously difficult registral transitions. Bielawa had collaborated with pianist Andrew Armstrong, but a last-minute “cooking accident” sidelined him; in his stead, Jeewon Park accomplished the heroic feat of mastering the keyboard part, which is replete with thunderous, heavy waves and intricately nuanced figurations.

Bielawa has created an immersive, provocative soundscape, filled with “made-up birds,” she writes, that “exist in a world where prisoners fly out of captivity effortlessly, and we all magically transcend death and suffering.”

Framing the premiere were two pieces that also deviate from the chamber music “norm” in their scoring. The opener was Mozart’s K. 423 Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, with violinist Augustin Hadelich’s silky, exquisite phrasing itself was worth the price of admission; his partner was Michael Klotz, playing his viola with patrician refinement.

And a blockbuster to conclude: Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, with its double bass instead of a second violin to give an ampler sound. The players — Andrew Wan (violin), Richard O’Neill (viola), Ronald Thomas (cello), Joseph Kaufman (bass), and George Li (piano) — collaborated with in-the-moment flashes of color and expression that are what you hope for in live chamber music.

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, new music, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Mahler’s Fifth by Way of Ligeti in Seattle

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Seattle Symphony and Seattle Symphony Chorale; (c) Brandon Patoc

The road leading to the fusillade of bright, brisk chords at the end of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – which concluded Seattle Symphony’s current season – was unusually long and winding. And dark …
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Filed under: Ligeti, Ludovic Morlot, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

Thomas Dausgaard and Seattle Symphony Climb Strauss’ Magic Mountain

“I am the last mountain of a large mountain range,” declared Richard Strauss towards the end of his life. Thursday night’s Seattle Symphony program, led by Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Dausgaard, combined the metaphorical mountain-climbing the composer depicted in Eine Alpensinfonie with the Four Last Songs.

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Filed under: review, Richard Strauss, Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard

A Mind-Expanding Evening with Seattle Symphony

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Carl Nielsen (1865-1931); photo from 1908

Last night was the first of two programs being led this month by Thomas Dausgaard, Seattle Symphony’s principal guest conductor. If you want to experience how Carl Nielsen’s symphonic music can deliver some of the most lofty moments in the concert hall, Dausgaard is the one to be your guide.

The symphonic music of Nielsen, the conductor’s fellow Dane, still awaits the level of recognition by the public at large that would be anywhere near commensurate with its quality. Dausgaard’s commanding interpretation last night made it clear that he regards this music on a par with the symphonies of Nielsen’s symphonist contemporaries, Sibelius and Mahler (whose Tenth Symphony Dausgaard has recorded with the SSO).

Last season Dausgaard led the SSO in Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony (“The Inextinguishable”). Unfortunately I had to miss that performance though I later heard lots of good buzz about it. One result is that it was decided at the last minute while planning the current season to make room for the Third Symphony from 1910-11.

I can see why. This is one of those remarkable collaborations between conductor and orchestra that simply works, for whatever reasons of chemistry and collective inspiration. It’s similar to how music director Ludovic Morlot has managed to turn the SSO into one of today’s premier exponents of Dutilleux.

Even without a history of being steeped in this music — of  performing it over a long period (on the part of the players, that is) — the Nielsen sounded vital and necessary. The Third abounds in interpretive enigmas. Take, for instance, the title, Sinfonia espansiva, even though it’s not a particularly epic work. There’s also the issue of Nielsen’s scoring, which adds a solo soprano and baritone to the soundscape, but only for a portion of one movement (and without words — they’re just used as a timbral addition, though in context it seems they are symbolic, too).

Nielsen resorts to a conventional four-movement plan, but his originality permeates the Third. The powerful unison chords on A that launch the piece make for one of the most striking starts of any symphony — the Eroica‘s industrial revolution factories turned into something cosmic. (The opening of John Adams’s Harmonielehre also comes to mind.)

Nielsen goes on to stage the fundamental symphonic idea of conflict in an extraordinary way. It’s as if the two main impulses of the work — the primal urgency of the opening and an elated, out-of-doors exuberance of being lost in nature (one possible signification of the expansiveness intended) — are unfolding on separate tracks, within and across its movements.

Yet, in Dausgaard’s reading, they made sense as complementary, ultimately striving towards a synthesis. This is music the conductor has obviously internalized. Dausgaard conducted without score or stand to impede his interactions with the SSO, and from those opening shocks, he seemed to command an overview of the entire trajectory of the piece, through all its details.

Here was another sense of expansion: simple seeds that can sprout into something majestic. But Nielsen’s originality is to suggest that through ellipsis … He doesn’t need a gigantic movement, in which we see every frame, to get the point across.

The Andante pastorale was especially beguiling, almost implying a creation-of-the-world scenario that was far more than bucolic daytripping. The entrance of the male and female human voices (John Taylor Ward and Estelí Gomez, literally singing from on high in the organ loft) became the Nielsenesque equivalent of the evolution Mahler scopes out in his massive Third, but telescoped into a frame that seemed almost casual. The Rheingoldish E-flat major of the Andante‘s gentle ending was a moment to savor — such beautiful work from Jeffrey Baker on flute and Jeff Fair leading the dulcet horns.

Dausgaard elicited many other examples of superb solo work but also shaped the score’s contrapuntal richness in full dimension, allowing for light and shade and clarifying lines in the mid- and background as well.  The almost manic dynamism of Nielsen’s climaxes emerged in doses of controlled ecstasy. Sinfonia espansiva turned out to be an epic in compact form.

Patrons were invited to stay on after Thursday’s concert to continue exploring Nielsen: a special dessert (Thursday only) offered the String Quartet No. 4 in F major, performed with fervor by violinist Stephen Bryant and violist Timothy Hale (both SSO players) and UW music students Erin Kelly (violin) and  Chris Young (cello).

The concert’s first half featured a U.S. premiere: Snow, the second number in a pair of compositions by Helen Grime inspired by the artist Joan Eardley (1921-63). (The first is Catterline in Winter.) Dausgaard, who also serves as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, joined with the BBC to commission these as part of a series called Scottish Inspirations. Snow was premiered at the 2016 Proms.

Helen Grime, who was born in 1981 and grew up in Scotland, spoke in an interview with the SSO’s Andrew Stiefel of what attracted her to Eardley’s paintings: “There’s a real bleakness that I think Eardley brings across beautifully in her paintings. You immediately get a strong feeling of the landscape, of the place, and of being there.”

(c) DACS/Anne Morrison; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Snow, Joan Eardley, c. 1958

Lasting about 9 minutes, Snow is an accomplished mini-tone poem of considerable imagination. “I wasn’t trying to re-create [the Eardley paintings] as musical pictures,” Grime remarks. “I wanted it to be like you were imagining the same scene in different ways.”

Grime showed herself to be a highly skilled orchestrator, but instead of using her large orchestral apparatus merely to create an atmospheric haze, Snow conveys a distinct impression of “moving on” to a different place by the end — what we’ve heard, the sounds that have happened, matter.

Also on the first half was a welcome return visit by Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Kuusisto made quite an impression with the Sibelius Concerto when Dausgaard invited him as part of his three-part Sibelius cycle in spring 2015.

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a moment of interaction between violin soloist Pekka Kuusisto and Thomas Dausgaard; photo (c) Brandon Patoc

From that memory, I expected Kuusisto to take a notably original approach to such a familiar score, and he did not disappoint.  He played up the contrast between where Mendelssohn famously starts out (with the soloist joining in almost at once) and where he takes us by the end. In this, Dausgaard was completely on the same page. It was fascinating to witness the active interactions and gestures between the two. The first movement had an added note of defiance to its pathos, while in the sparkling finale Kuusisto became a trickster, teasing and inciting the orchestra.

As with the Nielsen, here was an enigma: there’s something self-effacing about Kuusisto, yet he radiates a strong personality. He was at his finest in the middle Andante, phrased with the direct, unaffected emotions of the most serene folk song. And in an encore, Kuusisto showed another side of traditional folk music-making, with a slyly humorous performance of an example from his native Finland.

If you go: the program repeats Friday and Saturday (June 9 and 10); next week Dausgaard leads the SSO in an all-Strauss program (Four Last Songs and An Alpine Symphony), on June 15 and 17. Tickets at the links provided or call  206.215.4747.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved. 

Filed under: new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Spoleto Festival USA: Relishing the Challenge

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Adrian Angelico (Marquise de Merteuil) and  Christian Miedl (Valmont); photo by Leigh Webber Photography

Part Two of my report on the 2017 edition of Spoleto Festival USA is now live on Musical America (subscription required):

CHARLESTON, SC—Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Spoleto Festival USA, but this year’s edition underscores what I regard as one of the festival’s most admirable traits: a refusal to rest on laurels. Spoleto took a notable dare in programming Luca Francesconi’s profoundly unsettling Quartett among this summer’s opera offerings.

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Filed under: Musical America, new music, review, Spoleto Festival USA

Spoleto Festival USA: Historical Contexts, Contemporary Impulses

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Vivaldi’s Farnace starring Anthony Roth Costanzo at 2017 Spoleto Festival (first-ever fully staged production in U.S.); photo by Leigh Webber Photography

Part One of my report on the 2017 edition of Spoleto Festival USA is now live on Musical America (subscription required):

CHARLESTON, SC—Spoleto Festival USA has a way of weaving the threads of history into fascinating, unexpected patterns. The 450-seat Dock Street Theater [below], where Vivaldi’s Farnace is now receiving a superlative production, sits on the site of a theater that initially opened in 1736—just nine years after Vivaldi introduced the work at the Teatro Sant’Angelo in his native Venice.

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Filed under: Musical America, review, Spoleto Festival USA

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