The Spoleto Festival USA (which runs through June 11 in Charleston) opened on a cold, wet, windy Memorial Day weekend. At the “Celebrating Geoff Nuttall” concert on Friday evening, it was even possible to spot a few fur coats. Still, this is Spoleto, the South’s big showcase of artistic innovation and experimentation, and much was on tap. 

One theme this year is a focus on Africa, as seen in a new play, The Book of Life, by Rwandan playwright Gakire Katise Odile, and in South African choreographer Dada Masilo’s The Sacrifice, which explored Tswana dance forms and vocabularies, fusing them with classical ballet and modern dance. 

As always, this year’s festival features a robust jazz schedule and some musical programming that doesn’t fit into neat categories, now grouped together as the “Front Row” series. 

The Spoleto Festival USA runs through June 11. (Photo by Leigh Webber)

Classical music follows a pattern here: a formidable array of chamber music concerts; a couple of concerts featuring the festival orchestra; another couple featuring the festival chorus; and the “Music in Time” series, focused on experimental music. 

Opera has also followed a pattern here. For decades, there were almost always three different operas: a large mainstage production at the Gaillard Center; a Baroque or chamber opera, presented in the Dock Street Theater; and a third opera, often a new work, in a different venue. 

Spoleto broke that pattern in 2019, with only a single opera, Salome. Then came the lost 2020 season and a severely truncated 2021 season, both due to the pandemic. When the festival returned to the three-opera format last year (including the world premiere of Omar, which went on to win the 2023 Pulitzer Prize), opera fans had reason to rejoice.

Opera has always been center stage at this festival famously founded by Gian Carlo Menotti, an opera composer. Especially because of its innovative productions and its focus on newer works and obscure older works, Spoleto has become an important destination in the opera world, with an influence much larger than its budget or short season would suggest.

This year, however, there is again only one opera, Vanessa. A festival spokesman said this shouldn’t be taken as a sign of retreat, that the festival was committed to performing opera, and that the number of operas each season would be determined less by a template, but more by a matrix of factors including budget, availability of artists and venues, and what else was happening. Still, it’s concerning.


There’s only one opera, but it’s a doozy. Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, with a libretto by Menotti, who was also his partner in life, had its premiere in 1958 at the Metropolitan Opera and earned Barber the Pulitzer Prize. In 1978, it was performed here at Spoleto, with Menotti directing. It was that production, filmed and televised nationally, that put Spoleto on the map. This time, the Spoleto turned to Rodula Gaitanou’s production, which originated at the Wexford Festival in 2016.

The opera takes place In an isolated rural mansion where a dysfunctional family of three women deal with men, and each other, in an overheated manner reminiscent of a Tennessee Williams play. Vanessa, a baroness, was seduced and abandoned 20 years earlier by Anatol. Ever since, she has waited, deluded, for his return. 

A guest turns out to be the son of Anatol, who has the same name. On his first night, he seduces Erika, Vanessa’s niece, but she is soon repelled by his deceitful nature, holding out for something more genuine. Anatol turns his attention to Vanessa, who latches on to him in desperation, substituting him for his father. 

Erika, meanwhile, has become pregnant, but she rejects Anatol’s offer to marry her, ultimately aborting her pregnancy and attempting suicide in the winter night. Vanessa arranges to marry Anatol and flee to Paris where he plans to spend her fortune on a grand lifestyle. After their departure, Erika covers the mirrors and begins to wait for love to find her. 

Edward Graves with Nicole Heaston in “Vanessa.” (Photo by William Struhs)

In the opera, Vanessa and Erika are seen through the lens of Vanessa’s mother (and grandmother to Erika), the Old Baroness, and a family friend, Old Doctor.

Gaitanou’s elegant production updates the setting to the 1950’s and places it in upstate New York, a decision which helps to underline the timelessness of the opera’s themes, though it clashes with the class structure the opera depicts. As the audience arrives, a psychiatrist’s couch sits in front of the curtain, where it will remain for much of the opera, suggesting the introspective analysis the opera offers for each of the major characters. The Old Baroness spends her time painting, and we eventually realize that all of her paintings are portraits of Vanessa and Erika, though Vanessa has ordered them, and the mirrors, covered, an attempt to stop time and reflection. 

Soprano Nicole Heaston was a competent Vanessa, vocally solid but dramatically a bit understated in a role that has been likened to that of Blanche Dubois. Mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams brought an expressive sound and solid acting to the role of Erika. As the caddish Anatol, tenor Edward Graves was less persuasive dramatically, but his voice showed promise. Malcom MacKenzie was an excellent Old Doctor, mastering both the comic and more serious sides of his character. 

The vocal star of the evening, however, was septuagenarian Rosalind Plowright, whose commanding presence as the Old Baroness dominated the stage, combining moral rectitude and practicality in her shrewd advice and punishing judgment.

The other revelation was the sensitive conducting of Timothy Myers, who brought out the subtle aspects of Barber’s score, with just the right attention to the emotionally powerful plot. 

Vanessa, once a huge success, has retained its potency and deserves to be programmed more frequently. This performance succeeded as an ensemble work, honoring Spoleto’s own legacy and showcasing Barber’s unique blend of lyricism and modernism. If you’ve not heard Vanessa and would like to do so, RCA’s 1958 recording with the immortal Eleanor Steber in the title role and Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting is a good place to start.

A Poet’s Love

Tenor Jamez McCorkle, who had the title role here in Omar, last year’s acclaimed opera premiere, returned this season with a solo project. McCorkle has teamed up with visual designer Miwa Matreyek and dancer Jah’mar Coakley to present their adaptation of Robert Schumann’s best-known song cycle, Dichterliebe. McCorkle, who accompanied himself on piano, is a thoroughly flexible singer, and here he adapted his burnished sound nicely for each section of Schubert’s masterly cycle.

In the cycle, based on poetry by Heinrich Hein, the poet searches for love, finds it, then loses it, then mourns his loss, unable to let go. 

Tenor Jamez McCorkle (Photo by Vincent Master; treatment by Miwa Matreyek)

As McCorkle sang in German, images created by Matreyek were projected on a screen alongside him: moving drawings, initially black and white, with color building later. The images — horses, snakes, a garden, a pair of hands — are sometimes threatening, but more often protective. Coakley, whose image is projected on the screen, is a dancer, interacting with the images. 

The experience was mesmerizing, but an understanding of the words is critical to this work. A translation (either in the program or projected) of the text would have been helpful. Unfortunately, throughout this performance loud conversation from staff and volunteers in the lobby marred the experience for patrons seated in the back of the room.

Ian Bostridge’s performance of Dichterliebe,  available on YouTube, is perhaps the ultimate version of this classic.

Music In Time

One of the most intriguing series in the Spoleto lineup each year is “Music In Time,” a project created, hosted and conducted by John Kennedy — the festival’s resident conductor — to focus on modern and experimental music. This year’s lineup includes two programs, the first of which was Timekeepers. In his introduction, Kennedy pointed out that this day was the 100th birthday of György Ligeti, so it was the perfect time to present his Poèm symphonique, a strikingly original composition from 1962 which features 100 mechanical metronomes. 

The metronomes, arrayed on a platform, are set to different speeds and started, by technicians, at the same time. As they slowly wind down, the sound forms patterns, and as some begin to stop, it becomes possible to hear the individual instruments. As Kennedy observed, this kind of composition is about “finding new ways of listening,” and focusing on the sound textures turned out to be a rewarding experience. 

Spoleto Festival USA
“Poèm symphonique” features 100 mechanical metronomes. (Photo by Leigh Webber)

One other piece was on this program: Australian composer Lisa Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, written in 2018. Lim uses her work primarily to address ecological issues, and this one is especially focused on debris. Her sound has been described as “post-new-complexity” music, and much of it falls into the category of percussion, without distinct notes. Wild animal sounds, especially from birds, are a recurring feature. 

This work utilizes a full orchestra, with many of the musicians doubling on unusual instruments, such as Waldentufels (drums pieced by strings), and percussive rattles. But most of the sounds are produced using traditional instruments in innovative ways, like microtonal scales on the bassoon, or descending semitones on the brass. Lim is inventive, with a huge vocabulary, and the 40 or so minutes passed quickly.

Chamber Music

Chamber music has long been a major part of the mix at Spoleto, and it has developed a very specific template. This year, as has been the pattern recently, there are 11 different programs, each repeated three times, always at the intimate Dock Street Theatre, whose acoustics are ideal for chamber performances.

Since its origin in 1977, the chamber series here has relied on a “host” to serve as emcee, and for the past decade, this was the role of Geoff Nuttall, who died in October. This season’s chamber festival is dedicated to Nuttall. No successor has been chosen; instead, a rotating cast of Nuttall’s longtime friends and collaborators, including his widow, violinist Livia Sohn, introduced the works on the programs. 

Program I

The first program opened with Bach’s A-minor Flute Concert, a fiery work bursting with energetic dialogue. Even Livia Sohn, who introduced it, acknowledged that it was “really hard” when played at this pace. It is especially demanding of the first violin, performed by Owen Dalby, and the flute, Tara Helen O’Connor. They were joined by Sohn on violin, Lesley Robinson on viola, Christopher Costanza on cello, Anthony Manza on double bass, and Pedja Mužijević on harpsichord. 

Spoleto Festival USA
Chamber music is at the heart of Spoleto. Owen Dalby (left to right), Pedja Mužijević, Christopher Costanza and Lesley Robertson, perform Mozart. (Photo by William Struhs)

Then came Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, with Mužijević as pianist, joined by the three remaining members of the St. Lawrence Quartet: Dalby, Robinson and Constanza. Apparently the first work ever written for this combination of forces, this piece is nicely balanced between piano and strings, with motifs developed and passed around. The performance was exemplary. 

For the finale, we got a splendid rendering of Osvaldo Goljov’s Tenebrae, with Sohn and Dalby joined by violist Ayane Kozasa and cellist Paul Wiancko. Golijov, who introduced the work, was a favorite composer of Nuttall’s, and this piece was developed from milismas found in Coperin’s Troisieme Leçon de Tenebrae. 

The work plays around with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and Golijov suggests that it “juxtaposes the brutality of war with the innocence and hope of youth.” It’s the kind of hauntingly beautiful work that sends the listener straight to the record store, or website.

Program II

The second chamber program began with a wildly virtuosic jazzy piano showpiece written and performed by Stephen Prutsman, inspired, we were told, by a stray dog in Mexico City. 

We then heard Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet, written for oboe and string trio. In this performance, a soprano saxophone, nimbly played by Steven Banks, substituted for the oboe, joined by Sohn, Kozasa and Costanza. Written when Britten was 18 and immediately performed by no less than Léon Goosens on a BBC broadcast, the work is quintessentially English and reveals little of the signature Britten sound world that would soon follow. Much of it is built around a march. The bright sound of the saxophone gave it a special exuberance. 

Up next was a short work for string quartet, Remember, by Jamaican composer Eleanor Alberga. Written in 2000, the piece is jazzy, but with little apparent Jamaican influence. It was performed ably by Sohn, Dalby, Kozasa and Wiancko. 

The program closed with Ralph Vaughan Willams’ Piano Quintet in C minor, which uses the same unusual combination of instruments as Schubert’s Trout Quintet: piano (Prutsman), violin (Dalby), Viola (Robertson), cello (Costanza) and double bass (Anthony Manzo). First performed in 1905, the piece was withdrawn by the composer in 1918, not to be heard again until 40 years after his death, when his widow, Ursula, had it published. Wonderfully structured, it’s an exuberant piece, more Germanic than English. Prutsman is a wizard; this was an impeccable performance. 


James L. Paulk is a longtime classical music writer for such publications as ArtsATL and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is also a former state senator.


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