Critic's Notebook: Spoleto Festival Premieres Follow Somber Reflection


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Isabelle Poulenard, foreground, with Robert Getchell and Maïlys de Villoutreys in “La Double Coquette,” in Charleston, S.C.

Credit
William Struhs

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Through its 40 years, the Spoleto Festival USA has always been closely entwined with the life of the city that hosts it, be it through hurricane or political tempest. Shortly after the festival ended last year, on June 17, a gunman killed nine parishioners of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, including its pastor.

On Friday, the new pastor, the Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark, gave a stirring invocation at Spoleto’s opening ceremony. And the festival has responded to the shooting in various ways.

René Marie gave the premiere of the festival-commissioned song “Be the Change” on Sunday. The performance of the festival’s new “Porgy and Bess” production on Monday was dedicated to one of the victims, and members of her family attended. “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now,” a multimedia production written and directed by the artist Carrie Mae Weems, will address the shooting on Saturday and Sunday, and the festival has allotted 200 tickets to the families of the victims.

But a particularly touching and little publicized interaction occurred on Sunday morning, when three singers from the “Porgy” production — Lester Lynch, Lisa Daltirus and Indra Thomas — took part in the church’s morning service. Ms. Daltirus brought the members of the congregation to their feet with the rousing spiritual “Ride On, King Jesus.” This and the thrillingly exuberant work of the church choir throughout seemed to indicate that the parish’s spirit and resolve have survived this devastating assault undiminished: a heartening example to all.

The festival’s main offerings on Sunday could hardly have been more disparate: farce in the afternoon, small tragedy writ large at night.

First, in its American premiere, came “La Double Coquette,” at the Dock Street Theater. This is a radical reconception of Antoine Dauvergne’s 1753 opéra lyrique “La Coquette Trompée” (“The Coquette Deceived”), by the contemporary French composer Gérard Pesson. By making 32 additions (as he calls them), large and small, Mr. Pesson has transformed Dauvergne’s delightful little score into something Neo-Classical, along Stravinskian lines, except that Mr. Pesson’s “neo” is newer (Post-Neo-Classical?).

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The American premiere of Helmut Lachenmann’s “The Little Match Girl” at the Memminger Auditorium during the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C.

Credit
Julia Lynn

Mr. Pesson’s work owes a particular debt to Stravinsky’s reworking of Pergolesi, “Pulcinella,” which appears quite literally at times. But “La Double Coquette” also ranges widely in its references, from Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” to bossa nova.

The plot need not detain us: Florise loves Damon, who has taken up with Clarice; Florise dresses as a man to try to derail the dalliance. In the original, she does so. Pierre Alferi, Mr. Pesson’s collaborator, has modernized Charles-Simon Favart’s libretto with similar irreverence and added a final twist: Florise and Clarice fall in love with each other, and Damon is left out in the cold. The finale states the moral for our times: “Identity is only décor/Liberation is what bodies are for.”

The well-traveled production, directed by Fanny de Chaillé, features a fine cast — Isabelle Poulenard as Florise, Maïlys de Villoutreys as Clarice, and Robert Getchell as Damon — and some clever costuming (by Annette Messager and Sonia de Sousa), along with some that is simply bizarre. Anchored by the instrumental ensemble Amarillis, led by Violaine Cochard and Héloïse Gaillard, “Coquette” proved a delightful confection.

Then came Helmut Lachenmann’s “The Little Match Girl,” also in its American premiere, at the Memminger Auditorium. Mr. Lachenmann calls the work not an opera, but music with images, though he acknowledges even music to be something of a misnomer. It is perhaps best thought of as a sound environment, and a forbidding one, in keeping with the story by Hans Christian Andersen that serves as its inspiration and basic libretto.

A poor, rejected little girl finds herself adrift in a bitterly cold city, with bare head and bare feet, and only her sadly unsold matches to provide any momentary warmth at all. With huge forces — vocal, choral and orchestral — deployed sparely and at length, Mr. Lachenmann sets up a sort of purposeful monotony of prickly and spooky sound effects and musical fragments that bursts into sonorous splendor, mirroring the girl’s warming visions, when each of the three matches is struck. After the last, the music thins out again, but is more peaceable in the knowledge that the girl has joined her beloved grandmother in heaven.

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From left, Ms. Poulenard, Mr. Getchell and Ms. de Villoutreys in “La Double Coquette,” a reconception of Antoine Dauvergne’s 1753 opéra lyrique, “La Coquette Trompée.”

Credit
William Struhs

The sho (an upright mouth organ) appears in an extended solo, played here by Chen Bo. Snow falls, and Mr. Lachenmann gives it the slightest sounds, swishes and ticks. It seems that it could go on forever, and it almost does.

The production, directed by Mark Down and Phelim McDermott, is performed mostly in darkness, using shadow puppets. The text appears as titles among and around the shadowy representations — mere suggestions, actually — of people and settings. The only actual character, oddly, is Leonardo da Vinci, reading from his “Codex Arundel”; Adam Klein plays him, and also reads texts by Gudrun Ensslin.

John Kennedy, with much of the music happening behind him in a surround configuration, conducted the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and the Westminster Choir in a logistical tour de force. The sopranos Heather Buck and Yuko Kakuta were similarly adept in their vocal gymnastics, producing all manner of grunts, clicks and pops. Stephen Drury and Renate Rohlfing were the pianists.

Appropriately, and probably just as Mr. Lachenmann hoped, this is music hard to warm to, but there is no question that he achieved his effects. And a couple of dozen deserters aside, the crowd seemed to love it.

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