Spoleto returns with another glittering season

One of the most important arts festivals in North America brings international artists to Charleston

CHARLESTON — Spoleto, Italy, is an ancient city near the geographic center of the peninsula. It was founded by the Romans as a colony and, although not mentioned much in history, was an important ally to Rome, serving as a military, trade and arts partner. Throughout its history it has been a tenacious city (being destroyed and rebuilt several times during various changes of power), finally being brought into a unified Italy in1860.

In 1958, the Festival dei Due Mondi (The Festival of Two Worlds) was founded in Spoleto because it has two indoor theatres; had relatively low real estate prices at the time; and is relatively close to Rome. Gian-Carlo Menotti founded the festival to bring tourism to the area and to bring the performing arts to prominence.

In time, two other parallel events were established: The Spoleto Festival-USA (1977) and a short-lived event in Australia. After disputes with the Menotti family, the U.S. event became independent.

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In America, Spoleto occurs annually in Charleston for 17 days during May and June. Charleston was selected because of its wide assortment of performance venues. Each year the festival sponsors over 100 performances and has established an international reputation as a place where important new works in opera, theater, dance and music have their world or national debuts.

Tennessee Williams, the LGBT playwright who penned such classics as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” staged the world première of “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” at Spoleto in 1978 at the Dock Street Theatre.

Following are some interesting samples of the world-class performances that will be in residence at this year’s festival, running from May 23 to June 8.

Opera: ‘La Cenerentola’
Rossini wrote the music for this version of the Cinderella story only one year after “The Barber of Seville” was debuted, while he was still riding a wave of intense popularity. Inspired by the creative freedom that accompanied the widespread support and accolades, he turned his focus toward a glittering fairy tale world in an attempt to connect to an even wider audience.

Considered to be his most magical opera, replete with uproarious dialogue and splendid arias, the libretto by Jacopo Ferretti replaces some of the more familiar elements of the original (fairy godmother, pumpkin coach, glass slippers, etc.) with magic bracelets and philosophers who offer advice and encouragement.

The overall storyline is similar to the popular version, but the stepmother is replaced by a wicked stepfather. The malignant parent still fritters away Cinderella’s inheritance on two wicked stepsisters in this retelling. For all its adjustments, the moral of the tale remains the same: Kindness and forgiveness are saving graces that triumph over greed and jealousy.

May 23, 6:30 p.m.; May 26, 7:30; May 30, 7:30 p.m.; June 6, 7:30 p.m. Gaillard Auditorium. $30-$120. Run time: 2 hrs. 45 min.

Theater: ‘The Great War’ — American première
“Found object” refers to the practice in the visual and performance arts of using mundane objects in new ways. By selecting objects that would normally go unnoticed and bringing new awareness to them it is possible to harness a new vision of the world and its inhabitant and events. In this multimedia theatre piece, created by the Dutch theatre ensemble Hotel Modern, the performance itself will not happen on the stage.

The scenery is created in miniature from found objects. The action and set are then projected live onto a large screen on the stage — the artists are performing live but their actions happen in a different part of the building (a technique that can give a sense of separation or distance to the audience, which is important in this work for a variety of reasons).

Given the remote nature of the performance it becomes important to find a way to connect with the audience: The narrative takes place in World War I France and is highlighted by readings of letters and diary entries from a soldier who becomes less and less enthusiastic about fighting the Axis powers as he gets further from home. The disconnection, distance, invisibility and loneliness of war are commented on by removing the performance to a different part of the theater.

The destruction, pain and upheaval of violence are touched upon by means of the video itself and its poignant use of found objects such as stalks of parsley and a length of garden hose. The combination of high-tech media and low-tech sets and props connect to the brutality of war’s machines and the everyday people and objects affected by them.

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June 4-6, 8p.m.; June 7, 2 p.m.; June 7, 8 p.m.; June 8, 2p.m. Emmett Robinson Theatre, College of Charleston.
$32. Run time: 1 hr. 20 min.

Dance: ‘Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)’
In the dance world some pieces are almost required: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake,” and “Romeo and Juliet” are ballets that have been choreographed by everyone who wants to be taken seriously in the classical world.

However, contemporary dance also has a few mainstays that are all but required in order to be part of the canon of greats. In this regard, “The Rite of Spring” is to modern dance what “The Nutcracker” is to ballet: A story whose basic story line is reworked and adjusted to suit the taste and aesthetic of the director in question.

The original narrative was created by Nijinsky and focused on a rite of sacrifice to usher in the spring time. The music used is by Stravinsky (who also wrote “The Firebird Suite”), just as all Nutcrackers use some variation of the score by Tchaikovsky.

Compagnie Heddy Maalem is led by it’s founding artistic director, Heddy Maalem, a French-Algerian choreographer who works with dancers from various parts of Africa. The performers in this production come from Mali, Benin, Nigeria and Senegal. All the performers are equally comfortable in African and contemporary dance forms. This version of “The Rite of Spring” focuses on Maalem’s experiences in the city of Lagos (an enormous African metropolis in Nigeria with 12 million residents).

June 7, 8 p.m.; June 8, 2 p.m. Gaillard Auditorium. $10-$50. Run time: 1 hr.

Music: ‘Carolina Chocolate Drops’
Stringbands are American folk music groups comprised of members who play fiddle, banjo and a variety of homespun instruments (jugs, bottles, washboards, etc.). The art form has been in steady decline and has become extinct in many parts of the South.

Carolina Chocolate Drops, under the tutelage of Joe Thompson (possibly the last black traditional stringband player), are rescuing South Carolina Piedmont stringband music from permanent disappearance by playing old compositions and writing new ones. Their performances are cultural events that preserve a unique Carolina art and are filled with virtuosic playing and composition.

June 4, 9 p.m.; June 5, 9 p.m. The Cistern, College of Charleston. $20. Run time: 1 hr. 15 min.

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