Spoleto Festival USA gets wild – yes, even wilder than usual

Dee Dee Bridgewater, a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, will kick off the Wells Fargo Jazz series with Festival-eve and opening-night performances at College of Charleston Cistern Yard on May 25 and 26, 2017.
Dee Dee Bridgewater, a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, will kick off the Wells Fargo Jazz series with Festival-eve and opening-night performances at College of Charleston Cistern Yard on May 25 and 26, 2017. Courtesy of Dee Dee Bridgewater

Moody and suicidal Russians, language-drunk Irish tramps, multiple mute Mooses, a murderous Italian king with an even deadlier mother-in-law, an Argentine jazz hipster, a hunk of talking cardboard, performers who communicate through lightning-fast feet or somersaulting bodies – if you can’t find someone who speaks your language at Spoleto Festival USA this spring, you aren’t listening.

Last year’s 40th fest drew attention for its American masterpiece, “Porgy and Bess.” Yet the 41st reminds us that Spoleto’s real strength has always been to import eye-opening work from every continent but Antarctica. The festival runs May 26-June 11 in Charleston, and even veterans would be hard put to remember a more diverse lineup.

Anyone who wants to buy tickets now can do so through a donor pre-sale, with larger givers getting earlier deadlines. The general public can purchase tickets as of Jan. 18, though you’ll have to take at least one set of concerts – the Bank of America Chamber Music Series – on faith, as individual programs won’t be announced yet. (We do know the lineup includes composer-in-residence Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, who uses musical instruments to control multimedia content, and the Rolston String Quartet, a Canadian ensemble that won the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition.)


Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng (“Monkey: Journey to the West” and “Peony Pavilion”) takes on the most beloved (and melodious) of Russian operas, Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” Soprano Natalia Pavlova plays the young woman who loses her heart to a much-traveled older man, gets rebuffed and seeks consolation with a wealthy prince. Franco Pomponi plays the stiff-necked title role.

A different kind of royalty populates Vivaldi’s “Farnace,” which gets its U.S. staged premiere after 290 years. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose stunning festival debut came in 2016 chamber concerts (and who’ll sing there again), plays an Italian ruler who orders his son and wife to commit suicide to avoid being taken by an enemy – and who is himself targeted for death by his mother-in-law.

Another U.S. premiere, Luca Francesconi’s “Quartett,” slightly belies its name: It has just two singers, the main characters from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” locked in a game of seduction and deception. But this adaptation of Helmut Muller’s 1982 theatrical version of the famous story does involve two orchestras, one live and one pre-recorded and electronically altered.


“Waiting for Godot,” the most important Irish play of the 20th century – maybe the most important play, period – gets a production directed by Garry Hynes, who did “The Cripple of Inishmaan” here six years ago. Druid Theatre brings to life Samuel Beckett’s resigned, philosophic tramps in their encounter with a fascistic traveling master and his logorrheic slave.

Moses, a 2-foot cardboard puppet operated by three men, tells you a tale about life and death, God and himself – when he’s not distracted by anything that captures his fancy. London-based Blind Summit Theatre has won multiple awards for “The Table”; you may recall its visual contributions to “The Little Match Girl” here last year.

Ramona, a shunting engine who can move only 1,000 feet, waits for Ermon, a heroic Trans-Siberian locomotive returning from his journey across Russia. But she has more than coupling on her mind in “Ramona,” written and directed by Rezo Gabriadze for his Georgian marionette company, Gabriadze Theatre.

And women alone feature in two other dramatic narratives. Aurélia Thierrée returns to the Festival with “Murmurs,” a dreamlike and largely wordless rumination on an adventure in a surreal landscape; Henry Naylor’s monologue “Angel” was inspired by a true story, a woman’s experience during a 2014 siege in Northern Syria.


Big ballet companies are out this year. Instead, the dance portion begins with “Monchichi,” in which dancers/choreographers Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez pool their experiences in ballet, martial arts and breakdancing, and “Yo, Carmen,” in which flamenco dancer María Pagés turns the well-known story into an ode to femininity.

Different grooves move New York tapper Ayodele Casel, whose world premiere will explore language, identity and legacy, and L-E-V’s “OCD Love,” which explores just what you think, to beats by live DJ Ori Lichtik.

Speaking of love, “We Love Arabs” is dancer-choreographer Hillel Kogan’s attempt to depict the Arab-Israeli conflict with subtlety and humor. And Andrea Miller choreographed “W H A L E” for her own Gallim Dance; it uses radical physical language to juxtapose love, sex and domesticity.


The festival will score with classical concerts big (Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor) and small (the Music in Time series, this year celebrating the centenary of American composer Lou Harrison and John Cage’s piece “Lecture on the Weather”).

Yet the fest has an even more impressive lineup of non-classical artists in 2017. The best-known may be the vocalists: triple Grammy-winner Dee Dee Bridgewater, who comes back with her jazz band; American roots artist Rhiannon Giddens, former lead vocalist of the Carolina Chocolate Drops; and Argentina-born Sofía Rei, now a New York fixture who links South American folklore, jazz, flamenco and electronic sounds.

Brass and reeds get an equally strong look-in. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard brings his funk/jazz quintet The E-Collective; the Pedrito Martinez Group takes its name from the Cuban percussionist-singer-bandleader; saxophonist-flutist Charles Lloyd and his quartet fuse jazz with non-Western styles; Evan Christopher’s Clarinet Road pays homage to Creole reedmen such as Sidney Bechet and Barney Bigard; and Butler, Bernstein and the Hot 9 joins pianist-singer Henry Butler, trumpeter-arranger Steven Bernstein and a band that uses New Orleans tradition and early 20th-century blues as a launching point.

Had enough jazz? Try Della Mae, a Nashville-based string band that journeys into bluegrass, folk, soul and old-time music, or The Revivalists, the jam band playing at the Festival Finale before the fireworks at Middleton Place.


Spoleto always has at least a couple of things that demand their own category. Compagnie XY returns after its 2013 festival debut in “Le Grand C” with another piece of French circus: “Il n’est pas encore minuit,” a metaphor for the ways in which humanity faces instability. Bodies in motion evoke “inevitable fall, the state of weightlessness, the euphoria of uplift.”

And pianist Steven Prutsman, a fixture in the chamber series, has a different job in Cinema and Sound: He has written music for himself and a quartet to play with silent film shorts. You’ll see “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” a comedy about jealousy and infidelity among bugs; “Suspense,” which crosscuts between a woman under siege by a criminal and a husband hurrying home to save her – if he can avoid the police; and “Mighty Like A Moose,” where Mr. and Mrs. Moose decide to have corrective surgery without telling each other and set out to have affairs.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Spoleto Festival USA

The 2017 event runs May 26-June 11 in Charleston. Details: spoletousa.org, (843) 579-3100 or Spoleto Festival USA, 14 George Street, Charleston, SC 29401-1524.