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Commentary

Emmanuel Villaume (Photo: William Struhs)
25 May 2007

Opera on the move at Spoleto USA

Charleston, S.C. — For over 20 years it was two operas a season here at Spoleto USA, the all-arts festival brought to this cultural capital of the Old South by Gian Carlo Menotti in 1977.

The Christel DeHaan Music Director for Opera & Orchestra Emmanuel Villaume will lead the Ginn Resorts Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra in two orchestral concerts and the opera production Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny during the 2007 Spoleto Festival USA, May 25 - June 10.
Photo by: William Struhs.

 

Backbone of the program were then the twice-daily chamber music concerts hosted by venerable Charles Wadsworth in the Dock Street Theatre, an intimate venue that in various incarnations dates back to Mozart’s youth. Diverse programs in dance and theater and in orchestral, choral music and jazz filled the rest of the day - along with the two operas, a blockbuster in the cavernous Gailliard Auditorium and a more modest work - Baroque or modern - in the Dock Street.

Opera at Spoleto took on new life with the arrival of Emmanuel Villaume as music director of opera and orchestra events seven seasons ago. In a dynamic re-thinking of the role of opera at the festival French-born Villaume has increased the number of production from two to three and he has abandoned the Gailliard in favor of more hospitable venues.

 “Opera buffs will not come to Charleston for only two operas,” Villaume says. “We need three to make this a destination city — and festival — for them. “And we program them so that visitors can see all three on a single weekend.” Those changes, however, involve only externals. More crucial is the energy and the spirit of adventure that Villaume has brought to Spoleto in a choice of operas that would astonish — and challenge — audiences elsewhere in this country.

He opens the 2007 season that opens on May 25 and runs for 17 days with Weill’s 1930 “Mahagonny” and then moves on to the American premieres of Gluck’s 18th-century “L’ile du Merlin (ou le monde renversé” and “Faustus, the Last Night” by Pascal Dusapin, premiered at Berlin’s Staatsoper only months ago. Diverse and distant from each other in time as the trio of works on stage this season might seem, Villaume points to common ground. “Take ‘Magahonny,’ the work that took music in a new direction,” he says. “it’s about the building of a city and its decline. “But at its center is the meaning of community — of how people can work together.” And although this in no ways defines a theme that runs through the three works, each reflects on this subject. “They are all concerned with the definition of values — not just political values, but ethical values as well. “They are works of incredible power, and each enriches the experience of the other two.”

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier serve a co-directors of “Mahagonny,” to which — Villaume points out — there is much more than the “Alabama Song,” recorded both by David Bowie and the rock group The Doors. The text for “Mahagonny,” of course, is by Bert Brecht, now celebrated as the top German dramatist of the 20th century.

When Villaume, now at home in the world’s leading opera houses, began his search for an opera for the 500-seat Dock Street, he not only did not know “Merlin”; he did not even know that Gluck had written a comic opera. “It’s a perfect counterpart of ‘Mahagonny,’” he says. “Pierrot and Scapin, shipwrecked on Merlin’s island, ask themselves what a society ought to be. “It’s a strong work — and highly ironic.” The fact that there was no video or even a recording of the work enhanced its appeal, for Villaume realized that an adaption of the score — indeed, a total reconstruction of it — would be necessary.

“I didn’t know whether I could find someone willing to do it,” he says. “And then I thought of Baroque specialist Harry Bicket. “He’s come up with a very modern and witty ‘take’ on the work, which we’ll sing in the original French.” Bicket conducts “Merlin.” Christopher Alden directs the staging.

For his new opera on one of the oldest themes in European literature French composer Dusapin turned to Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” written two centuries before Goethe’s classic drama on the man who made a contract with the Devil. In his last night Faust — somewhere between memory and forgetfulness, between dream and reality — seeks answers from a mocking Mephisto and an angel who is blind. Dusapin wrote his own libretto for a score described by critics as “dark and somber,” as “a great lament” and rich in “sweet angular melodies.” And Villaume points out that here too the question of community is central.

Director of “Faustus” is David Herskovits; Dusapin will be present for its American premiere.

Ticket sales for all three works are robust, for, as Villaume points out, “we have won the trust of our audience — both those at home in Charleston and those who come from elsewhere. “They have learned to like what we do.”

For information on the Spoleto USA season and for tickets, call 843-579-3100 or visit www.spoletousa.org.

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