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Rising above 

Spoleto operas triumph, despite flag controversy

Since its inception 24 years ago, the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., has suffered enough bad press and mishaps to bury almost any other festival: in-fighting among administration, hurricanes, off-the-charts hot and humid weather and, unique to this year, controversy over the state flag, have all had nay-sayers perennially predicting the downfall of the summer festival. This year, controversy over the state capitol's flying of the Confederate flag caused the NAACP to endorse a boycott on tourism in the state, which in turn caused dancer Bill T. Jones to cancel performances. Ticket sales were slow, but many arts supporters still showed up for some world class productions, filling most shows to near capacity.

I dislike the Confederate flag, both in South Carolina and as part of the state flag of Georgia, but after a bit of soul searching, I decided to attend Spoleto. There are no other arts festivals in the South that are of equal quality, so it's important to support it. The festival itself came out publicly against the Confederate flag, and even offered programming that confronts the issue, so it seems a step in the wrong direction to boycott the festival. We here in the South certainly need more art, more opera, more theater and fewer Confederate flags. It unequivocally needs to be removed from any official symbolic capacity (those who argue the flag is an important piece of history need to understand the important historical lesson that the South lost), but just as importantly we need to support our arts events.

Anyway, the two opera productions I saw were amazing. Our first night there, we attended Verdi's Luisa Miller. Spoleto Festival's production at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium made me wonder why more opera companies don't produce it each season, and why it's not part of the regular repertoire. Director Christopher Alden and set designer Allen Moyer reimagined Verdi's pastoral Tyrolean setting as a sort of deeply religious, restrictive environment, which only added to the opera's tragedy. Its sense of repressiveness and its environment of fundamentalism and feudalism weren't entirely text-based, but they seemed impressively natural and a perfect fit. A copy of Hans Holbein's "Dead Christ" dominated as a backdrop to the minimalist sets; the chorus was separated by sex and dressed in spare and drab costumes.

But the real star of the production was undoubtedly Sondra Radvanovsky, whom Spoleto has been lucky enough to have twice before, once as Alice Ford in Falstaff in 1996 and again in the Verdi Requiem of 1997. An American, Radvanovsky is a recent graduate of the Young Artists Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, and is already becoming a seasoned veteran of the Met stage. Her rich and powerful voice managed to fill the auditorium, while still providing a sense of delicacy and intimate drama appropriate to the tragic role. A standout voice in an excellent cast, this exciting soprano will be one to watch in up-coming seasons.

Our second night at Spoleto we went to see Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride at the Dock Street Theater, probably one of the best venues for opera in the South. This small, two story, horseshoe shaped theater is modeled after baroque theaters in Europe, and its shape, intimacy and acoustics approximate better than any other the opera experience of the early 18th century. From the first note to the last, I could not only hear, but also feel, the music. I was no fan of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's stage direction: The huge, flat, steely, abstract, minimalist backdrops were a bore to look at, and the costumes made Euripedes' characters look as though they'd climbed out of a mineshaft, circa 1937.

Nonethless, the production was excellent, featuring some all-around fantastic voices. Particularly notable, of course, was Andrew Schroeder in the lead role of Oreste. I especially liked the tender, intimate scenes with his childhood companion Pylade, played by Tracey Welborn. Their voices were perfectly suited to each other's and they turned the arias into some of Gluck's most beautiful and moving music.

All in all, the two productions I saw, plus the excellent mixed program of daytime chamber music, made me wish I could have stayed longer and seen more of what Spoleto had to offer.

The Score is a monthly column covering issues and ideas of interest to the community of classical musicians and listeners in Atlanta. If you have an event or issue you'd like covered, please contact Andrew Alexander at aalexander@mindspring.com.

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