At 12:45 p.m. yesterday, all the church bells of Charleston, of which there are many, pealed at once in celebration of Spoleto Festival, U.S.A., Gian Carlo Menotti's transplanted arts festival which was entering its second day. The sweet clangor was an echo of the growing sense of jubilation permeating the festival crowd and the city generally.
The night before had seen the first of a total of 100 artistic events scheduled during the festival's 12 days, a production of Tchaikovsky's opera "The Queen of Spades" that stirred mixed critical reaction but won a hearty reception from its first-night audience.
Yesterday at noon, however, came the first of what will be almost daily chamber music concerts at the festival, and with it, the first taste of the musical excellence associated with Italy's Festival of Two Worlds, the counterpart and model of the Charleston affair.
It was a program of Pergolesi, Schubert and Dvorak arranged by the festival's chamber music directors, Charles Wadsworth and Peter Serkin, and performed in the beautifully renovated, accoustically perfect 18th-century playhouse called The Dock Street Theater, reputedly the first prosecenium theater in the country.
Before and after the chamber music, the festival patrons were all smiles. "I've got an idea for next year," one woman was overheard saying to her husband. "This is so terrific, why don't we go on from next year's festival to Spoleto itself?"
The press corps that is covering the festival had been treated the same morning to a "low country breakfast" - bloody marys, sauteed shrimp, lime-house sausage, hominy surprise - in the immaculate elegance of a colonial-period residence on Tradd Street. Though there were varying estimates of the festival's artistic prospects among the group, the mood was one of heady delight over the festival scene and atmosphere.
Before the festival started, the question everyone asked was, "Why Charleston?" Now that it's here and begun, the place seems the best thing about the event, and the choice of site a brilliant inspiration. Menotti wanted some kind of parallel with Italy's Spoleto - a town that was quiet, beautiful, historic, and removed from the beaten track - and that's what he's got. It now appears that the importance of what's happening here is not so much what Spoleto can do for Charleston, as what Charleston can do for Spoleto.
In a more cosmopolitan setting, the programs for Spoleto U.S.A. would hardly seem very impressive as artistic offerings - in Washington or New York, they'd be lost in the shuffle as individual events. A few new dance works and a new play by imon Gray are the closest the agenda comes to important premiers, and there are very few artists among the participants who are not frequently encountered in other contexts in this country.
What is gratifying special about the festival, though is the rich mixture of forms and genres, the juxtaposition with native southeastern arts, crafts and performances, and - most winning of all - the city itself, and enchanting work of art in its own right.
Charlestonians are found of saying that theirs is not a restored city but a preserved one. History doesn't have to be dug up or rebuilt here - the city is history. There are no big chain stores here, and no X-rated movies or massage parlors, either.
Instead, in a lazy stroll or drive, you can take in the Dock Street Theater, Fort Sumter off in the bay, houses dating from the 17th century, the original Catfish Row, the celebrated display gardens and plantations, a Jewish synagogue founded in 1792, and any number of architectural gems. Charleston is, in short, a perfect retreat from the rush, congeston and rubble of most urban centers, and an ideally companionable backdrop for an arts festival.
"The Queen of Spades" seemed an odd choice for a festival opener in the first place. Though Tchaikovsky's score is filled with treasures, the hero is a singularly unsympathetic gambling addict whose emotional and monetary fortunes don't engage one's attenion easily. Overcoming the libretto's shortcomings takes a truly superlative production from every standpoint. Wednesday night's staging, however, could not boast a single first-rated voice, and was further encumbered by ill-conceived sets, ugly costumes, and generally unconvincing stage direction.
Magda Olivero, the most celebrated singer of the cast, had a certain evil flamboyance as the Countess, but her voice was little more than a shadow. Patricia Craig had some nice moments as Lisa, but moments only. Only David Arnold's Count tomsky was consistently fine, and the real vocal triumph belonged to the Westminster Choir, which handled the challenging choruses splendidly.
The festival really seemed to get into gear artistically, though, with yesterday's chamber music concert, the pearl of which was a warm, spacious and robust performance of Dvorak's "Piano Quintet in A" by pianist Richard Goode, violinists James Buswell and Ida Kavafian, violist Daniel Phillips and cellist Yo Yo Ma.