It's the Year of the 'Monkey' at Spoleto USA

A promotional image for
A promotional image for "Monkey: Journey to the West" by British rocker Damon Albarn. (By Jamie Hewlett Via Associated Press)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008

CHARLESTON, S.C., May 25 -- For some, the main news from the 32nd Spoleto Festival USA here is that the festival, cut loose from its Italian counterpart in 1993, is patching up relations with its parent. For others, the big story is the new Memminger Theater, which opened on Thursday after a $6 million renovation with a revised version of "Amistad," Anthony Davis's 1997 opera about the lost slave ship.

But for most people here, the real news is that Spoleto is presenting Damon Albarn's first opera.

This news separates festival regulars from, well, the rest of the world. Albarn is one of Britain's biggest pop stars -- leader of the group Blur and the cartoon rock band Gorillaz, whose last album sold more than 7 million copies. But the high-culture crowd is drawn to his opera "Monkey: Journey to the West" mainly because it was conceived by the brilliant director and Spoleto regular Chen Shi-Zheng.

At a festival featuring artists from Seamus Heaney to Laurie Anderson, it's Albarn whom local people recognize on the street. And "Monkey," a "circus opera" with Chinese acrobats, video animations and Albarn's Asian-fusion score, is the hottest ticket of the Spoleto season, which runs until June 8.

The late composer Gian Carlo Menotti founded Spoleto USA in 1977, an offshoot of the "Festival of Two Worlds" he founded in 1958 in Spoleto itself. He could not have anticipated that his legacy would live on more vividly in his festivals than in his once-popular but now generally unfashionable operas.

Still, Spoleto USA has done very nicely since his departure, after considerable controversy, in 1993; whereas the Italian festival, which remained under his control, became increasingly moribund. When Menotti died in 2007 at 95, Spoleto's city fathers deposed his adopted son Chip, who has a gift for alienating those around him, and reconnected with the festival in Charleston, whose current $8.5 million budget appears to go considerably further than the Italian festival's $11 million of state subsidies. Spoleto USA's excellent music director, Emmanuel Villaume, will conduct a production at this year's Spoleto Festival in Italy, and the mayor of Spoleto, Massimo Brunini, sported a red-white-and-green sash at the opening ceremonies on Friday.

"We were never unified," says Nigel Redden, Spoleto USA's leprechaun-like director, "so we can't be reunified. But there was an intimate connection."

The festival scene has burgeoned in the years since Spoleto was founded; today, international co-productions make the rounds from Edinburgh to Paris to Redden's other festival at Lincoln Center in New York. Still, Spoleto remains one of the few American festivals to present a cross section of all the performing arts, and one of the few that produce their own work.

Take the new production of "Amistad," reconceived for this second hearing as contemporary rather than grand opera, with an impressive production-in-the-round by Sam Helfrich that proves a better frame than the more literal original for Thulani Davis's dense, poetic text. Streamlined though it is, the work remains uneven. Davis is at his best when he embraces an identifiable musical style; the piece's strongest scenes were a big blues aria for chorus and Cinque (Gregg Baker), the leader of the Africans on trial for their freedom, and a churchlike number contrasting men's and women's choruses.

The weakest link was the vocal line. Time and again the orchestra surged up with a many-layered vitality (thanks to Villaume's strong, easy conducting), but the soloist was hamstrung by an awkward line lying in an odd part of the voice. It was frustrating to watch Michael Forest, in the mercurial role of the Trickster God who is partly responsible for the Africans' predicament, dancing onstage to the undeniably catchy orchestra music while singing something that was not catchy at all.

The Memminger Theater is still a work in progress. Barely finished in time for the opening, with a bare concrete lobby, it was converted overnight from an 800-seat theater-in-the-round for "Amistad" to a proscenium space seating half as many, for the first program in Charles Wadsworth's chamber music series. (Next week, Redden says, the proscenium stage will be larger.) The elderly Wadsworth, a Spoleto fixture, offers so much rambling commentary it can obscure the virtues of his approach, which, if dated, smacks of the 1970s rather than the 19th century: His chat, and the lack of a printed program, create a sense of easy communication, and the audience pays attention.

The first program was a delight: the Poulenc Flute Sonata with the lyrical Tara Helen O'Connor; Vaughan Williams's song cycle "On Wenlock Edge" with the St. Lawrence String Quartet and Paul Groves (whose voice has grown beefier than his lyric-tenor beginnings, with a doughtiness that evoked Jon Vickers in approach if not in amplitude); and a rip-roaring performance of Dohnanyi's robustly Romantic Sextet.

Across town, the outrageously ugly Gaillard Municipal Auditorium is an echo chamber for Rossini's "Cenerentola" ("Cinderella"), which always seems like a lot of opera to negotiate for a few good ensembles, a great final aria and the slenderest of plots. The women were all good -- Jennifer Check and Laura Vlasak Nolen a vocally powerful pair of stepsisters; Sandra Piques Eddy with a great lower register but a routine approach to the title role. But Charles Roubaud's production, rife with the usual shtick, felt dutiful, in keeping with by Matteo Beltrami's polished but obedient conducting.

The opera is clearly a counterweight to the festival's more adventurous fare, though it does contribute to this year's unspoken "trickster" subtext. Every major piece features an unpredictable, magical figure: Alidoro, who engineers Cinderella's transformation for the Prince's ball; the Trickster God in "Amistad;" the ill-behaved title figure in "Monkey." One might add to this list the puckish Redden, with his halo of fuzzy white hair and a hint of a smile playing around his lips.

"Monkey" was circus indeed, a pageant of brightly colored fabrics and costumes and airborne acrobats. The story, based on an epic novel from the Ming Dynasty, is pure fairy tale, deliberately told in a cartoonish, two-dimensional way -- the visual conception by Jamie Hewlett, also of Gorillaz, brings more than a hint of Japanese anime to this Chinese saga. Albarn's score piles tufts of soft-core pop against moments of Beijing Opera, colored with other-worldly sounds like ondes Martenot and glass harmonica.

All of this is not quite as diverting as it should be. Though one effect follows another in this road-buddy tale of a motley group of travelers journeying toward a goal, there is so little substance that the adventure begins to drag halfway through.

Yet this piece is part of a significant recent trend of major pop stars with classical training seriously exploring the use of the orchestra: Sufjan Stevens's experimental "The BQE" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood's recent New York program of a piece incorporating his score for "There Will Be Blood." This body of work may not all be great, and it lies outside the expertise of many in this field. But like it or not, it is one seed of a viable future of art music that may be a bigger trend than the goings-on at any individual festival. It says a lot for Spoleto that it embraces a wide enough spectrum to include it.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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