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Pureum Jo and Jihee Kim in Toshio Hosokawa’s “Matsukaze” at the Spoleto Festival USA. | JULIA LYNN
Pureum Jo and Jihee Kim in Toshio Hosokawa’s “Matsukaze” at the Spoleto Festival USA. | JULIA LYNN

BY DAVID SHENGOLD | Beautiful, historic Charleston, South Carolina, has hosted the Spoleto Festival USA since 1977. Classical and jazz concerts compete with dance and theater events in all styles, and in recent years two opera productions in different venues have become standard. The festival is rarely conservative in its offerings, but only after seeing both successful evenings did one understand the pairing of recondite works. Musically, they shared only the admirable choral preparation of departing longtime Westminister Choir leader Joseph Flummerfelt, the last link to the festival’s Italian origins under composer Gian Carlo Menotti.

The intimate Dock Street Theatre, reconstructed in the 1930s on the site of North America’s earliest operatic theater (1736), housed the American bow of Toshio Hosokawa’s “Matsukaze” — premiered at Brussels’ Theatre Monnaie in 2011 — in Chen Shi-Zheng’s superb staging. Every aspect of the physical production — costumes, video, lighting, and a semi-figurative set — meshed hauntingly to evoke the Noh-based ghost story. John Kennedy led his precise orchestral forces — blending Western and Eastern sonics, with lots of percussion and high flutes — thrillingly.

Rare operas soar at Spoleto USA

Odd to offer a Japanese opera with Korean and American soloists for an American audience in German, but Hannah Duebgen’s libretto is very evocative and Hosokawa set it with great skill. Gary Simpson fielded a strong baritone but little expressiveness — musical, facial, or textual — as the story’s central figure. Perhaps he was directed to emulate Zen self-absorption, but it read as passivity. What did the Monk learn from his ghostly encounter? If nothing, what’s the story’s point?

The first words from Thomas Meglioranza’s Fisherman showed by comparison what was lacking in Simpson’s performance. This acclaimed “new music baritone” is a complete musician and singing actor. The two long-dead sisters, grieving for their joint beloved, drew brilliant and wrenching physical and vocal performances in intricately linked music from Juilliard’s Pureum Jo (a ravishing timbre even at the extreme top) and Jihee Kim (more at home in German). These are names to watch. This outstanding show will be on view at the Lincoln Center Festival July 18-20 at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater (lincolncenterfestival.com).

Ghosts and the memory of abandonment linked “Matsukaze” thematically to the key work of the following day’s double-bill of verismo rarities at the larger-pitted Art Deco Sottile Theatre at the College of Charleston — Puccini’s first produced opera, “Le Villi.” Its last major American hearing was a 2006 Carnegie concert starring Aprile Millo. Stefano Vizioli’s smart direction styled the Black Forest as a 1950s flower-wallpapered hall, which became a white, padded-celled madhouse when the vengeful Willis appeared, giving their frenzied all to Pierluigi Vanelli’s exciting choreography.

Jennifer Rowley’s huge, elemental soprano proved impressive. Levi Hernandez sang with gorgeous line and focus. Dinyar Vania fared acceptably, but less elegantly, in Rodolfo’s strenuous duties.

The curtain raiser was Giordano’s 1910 “bozzetto lirico” (“lyric sketch”), just over 30 minutes. While well orchestrated, it’s only fitfully of melodic interest. The dramatic arc — jolly nuns are visited by a woman seeking to see her child who, in their care, has just died, though the nuns don’t tell her that — is curious and unsatisfying: “Suor Angelica” without the revelation, suicide, or miracle! Vizioli’s 1950s milieu (basketball hoop, sunglasses) for a clearly 19th century story here did not aid credibility.

Rowley was exceptionally strong dramatically and vocally as the unhappy mother, and Ann McMahon Quintero showed an excellent, even mezzo. Veteran dramatic soprano Linda Roark-Strummer affirmed her professionalism as the Mother Superior. Maurizio Barbacini’s conducting lent both works sound pacing and aptly blended orchestral color. A worthwhile excursion.

The Bristol Old Vic’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” co-designed and executed with the Handspring Puppet Company that did the miraculous, redeeming visuals for the terribly-scripted “War Horse,” promised much yet disappointed, save for a very few seconds of the kind of imagery that gets festivals to book touring productions. Tom Morris’ direction gave textual clarity — and plot comprehensibility and character delineation beyond shtick — very low priority. The young lovers, in particular, often spoke indistinctly, without commanding the verse. The rude mechanicals — doubling as visually striking but repetitive-gestured fairies — went over the top so early that their “Pyramus and Thisbe,” distended despite considerable cuts and just not funny, formed no climax.

The only successful touch was having the otherwise overbroad, attitudinizing Nick Bottom suddenly declaim Pyramus’ death speech with real conviction, catching the onstage and offstage audience up short. But when the approximate Flute/ Thisbe attempted the same gambit, the magic dried up. By far the strongest, best-spoken performance came from Saskia Portway, a sexy and commanding Hippolyta/ Titania.

Much more fun: at the event-rich Fringe Festival — dubbed “Piccolo Spoleto” — a wonderfully resourceful trio of gifted actors (Greg Tavares, Timmy Finch, and Steven Shields) had a field day with “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” at the established improv troupe Theater 99 .

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for many venues.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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