Two Italian names -- Annina and Flora -- dominated the opening sessions of the Spoleto Festival here. Each is the title role of a major festival attraction; otherwise, they could hardly be more different. One is a young woman who sees supernatural visions; the other is a healthy, normal baby elephant.
Annina is the "saint" in Gian Carlo Menotti's opera, "The Saint of Bleecker Street" -- a holy but disturbed native of New York's Little Italy who suffers real and symbolic agonies at the apex of the strangest love triangle in the operatic repertoire. The other two angles in this odd erotic-geometrical figure are her atheist brother Michele and Jesus Christ.
Like Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," "The Saint of Bleecker Street" had its premiere (Dec. 27, 1954) on Broadway rather than in an opera house. After the performance here, on the opening night of the festival, it was easy to see why it won Menotti his second Pulitzer Prize for music and his second New York Drama Critics' Award.
Flora has fewer problems than Annina. She is a 3-year-old African elephant, the star of the Circus Flora, which is operating under an Italian silk tent in a park in downtown Charleston. The Circus Flora is a replica of the kind of small family circus that used to tour Italy in past centuries -- specifically of a circus that visited Charleston in the early 1800s, when there were reportedly only three elephants in the entire United States.
It is proudly small and old-fashioned, a one-ring, one-elephant circus with some costumes and show-biz motifs that are rooted in the Italian commedia dell'arte. This tradition, dating back to the Renaissance (like opera itself) resembles the modern Punch and Judy puppet show; its characters (with such names as Arlecchino and Colombina) are familiar to opera-lovers from "I Pagliacci," which deals with love and death in a traveling commedia dell'arte troupe.
Flora, the (relatively) tiny star of the little circus, is definitely not a saint, like her rival for attention here. Nor is she a heartbroken clown type, troubled with problems of love and self-image like the people in "Pagliacci." In her first festival performance, she seemed content to be a baby elephant, flapping her ears, saluting the crowd with her trunk and performing simple elephant tricks while other members clowned, danced, pranced and performed death-defying tricks on trapezes and high (well, relatively high) wires.
The tent (about the height of a two-story building) is so small that the first trapeze performer (a man in a devil costume) was able to kick the top of the tent while performing some of his wilder swings. Every member of the audience had a seat within 50 feet of the ring. When a clown squirted water, audience members were sprinkled; when a trapeze artist seemed about to fall, audience members felt he might land in their laps. It was a circus equivalent of chamber (rather than orchestral) music -- small-scaled, intimate and performed with technical perfection.
Menotti -- founder of the Spoleto Festival and originator of the circus -- sat in the audience at the first performance, enjoying the show as much as any of the children present.
Outside the tent, the scene in the park was like a larger circus, with expensive junk food and free entertainment. Magicians, ventriloquists, brass bands and amateur choral groups kept up a three-ring flow of performances for the audience, some of whom (particularly the children) were dressed in costumes and had their faces painted. One star of the free outdoor festival (called "Piccolo Spoleto" or "Little Spoleto") was Delilah Wallenda, granddaughter of the late Karl Wallenda, who opened the festival walking a 200-foot-long high wire strung between Charleston's city hall and the post office.
One outdoor ventriloquist blended the show-biz and junk-food motifs with a dummy called "Patty, the Talking Hamburger," fresh out of the bag from a local fast-food shop. Patty talked with a southern accent and looked a little bit like Pac-Man when she moved her "lips." She came out of the bag to meet her audience only with great reluctance. "Come on out," said the ventriloquist. "I don't want to," said Patty. "Why not?" "They'll bite me."
Annina, the "saint" in "The Saint of Bleecker Street," was equally reluctant to meet her public, which was equally eager (on a psychological level) to devour her. The opening scene of the opera takes place on Good Friday in lower Manhattan a generation ago. On stage, a miracle-hungry crowd is singing a litany in Latin while an observer reports from a doorway on what is happening in the next room: Annina, in an ecstatic, mystical union with Jesus Christ, is reliving the agonies of his crucifixion. At the end of the scene, she is carried into the room, half-conscious and bleeding from nail-holes that have appeared mysteriously in her hands.
There is a blind child in the crowd that presses around her. The child is seen again and again in the opera's three acts but remains blind. Annina can suffer spectacularly, and she is an object of veneration for the people of her neighborhood, who carry her (struggling and screaming) in a religious procession right behind a candle-lit statue of the Madonna.
But she cannot perform miracles. She cannot even convert her atheist brother Michele, who obviously has incestuous longings for her. In Act 2, Michele murders his mistress (in a scene not unlike the end of "Carmen") during an argument involving Annina. In Act 3, it is Annina's turn to die, and she does so at the climax of a scene in which she is taking the veil to become a nun.
The whole production (for which Menotti was the stage director as well as composer and librettist), had an intense theatrical impact in which the (essentially conservative, romantic) music was only one element, heightening but not dominating the spectacle.
Menotti, in his quiet, individualistic way, may have produced the Gesamtkunstwerk (the totally integrated work of art) that was proclaimed but not really achieved by Richard Wagner and that is still discussed by theoreticians who tend to ignore, or even to scorn, Menotti. The visual impact of the production was greatly enhanced by the sets and costumes of Zack Brown, whose work is familiar to Washington Opera audiences and whose sketches for various stage productions are on exhibit in a Charleston museum during the festival.
The opening night performance, conducted by Christian Badea, was musically powerful but could use further polishing. Outstanding performances were given by Franco Farina as Michele and Leslie Richards as Desideria, his mistress. Gail Dobish, in the title role, looked the part and sang well, but often projected tone more effectively than words.
The supporting cast was exceptionally strong -- notably Margaret Haggart in a small role with some juicy moments. The Westminster Choir, always a highlight of Spoleto festivals, sang superbly and looked exactly right -- like a crowd of peasants somehow transported from "Cavalleria Rusticana" to lower Manhattan.