Review: Opera, Chamber, and Orchestral Music @ Spoleto Festival USA
By Perry Tannenbaum
Recognition of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and the We See You White American Theatre manifesto (issued by a coalition of BIPOC artists in 2020) were certainly on Nigel Redden’s mind when he decided that the 2021 Spoleto Festival USA would be his last as general director. White and long-tenured at the Charleston arts fest, Redden saw himself personifying what needed to be changed, not merely in American theatre but across the nation’s arts.
Yet that wasn’t to say that Spoleto was backward in infusing diversity into its programming or in embracing contemporary, cutting-edge work in its presentations of music, theatre, and dance – which made Redden’s swan song, at a Festival that constricted and hamstrung by Covid-19, all the more poignant. But all Redden’s work was not truly done, even after he officially stepped down last October, for there was one grand project of his that had yet to be completed. Spoleto’s commission of Omar, the much-anticipated new opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels would at last be unveiled after being shelved for two years.
Based on the slim autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, the only known narrative by an American slave written in Arabic, Giddens’ new work was appropriately co-commissioned by the University of North Carolina, for Omar’s servitude began in Charleston before he escaped to a more benign slaveholder up in Fayetteville, NC. Rather than letting this world premiere stand as an isolated testament to Redden’s legacy – or a belated rebuke targeting the infamous Muslim ban of 2017 – incoming general director Mena Mark Hanna has emphatically made Omar the tone-setting centerpiece of his first Spoleto.
Predictably enough, Giddens and Abels sat for a public interview with Martha Teichner on the afternoon following the premiere, just a few hours before she and her husband, Francesco Turrissi, appeared in an outdoor concert at Cistern Yard. Five days after the world premiere at Sottile Theatre, the principal singers from Omar and the choir resurfaced at Charleston Gaillard Center for a “Lift Every Voice” concert, further affirming Black Lives. But that theme, as well as Ibn Said’s African origins and Islamic faith, suffused the Festival’s programming more deeply than that.
In the jazz sector, for example, two African artists were featured with their ensembles at the Cistern on successive night after Giddens’ concert, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and his orchestra followed by South African pianist Nduduzo Makhatini and his quartet. More importantly, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, three years after participating in a Geri Allen tribute, paid homage to his distinguished mom, harpist/organist/composer Alice Coltrane and her 1971 Universal Consciousness album, a spiritual landmark that defined Indocentric jazz, laced with flavorings of Africa, India, Egypt, and the Holy Land.
Unholy Wars was another Spoleto commission, with tenor Karim Sulayman as its lead creator, furthering the pro-Muslim thrust of the Festival’s opera lineup. Taking up Claudio Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the 1624 opera that extracted its tragic love story from Torquato Tasso’s epic Jerusalem Delivered, Sulayman boldly flipped the First Crusade narrative. Sulayman, a first-generation American born in Chicago to Lebanese immigrants, conceived a counter-Crusade, attempting to render vocal compositions by Monteverdi, Handel, and others through the perspective of those defamed and marginalized by the prevailing white Western narrative.
Portraying the narrator, Sulayman chiefly championed the warrior woman Clorinda – who needed to be white-skinned and convert to Christianity for 17th century Europe to see her as worthy of Tancredi, the valiant Christian knight who mistakenly slayed his beloved in combat. Soprano Raha Mirzadegan as Clorinda outshone bass baritone John Taylor Ward’s portrayal of Tancredi, while dancer Coral Dolphin, devising her moves with choreographer Ebony Williams, upstaged them both. We could conclude, in stage director Kevin Newberry’s scheme of things, that Dolphin’s dancing silently represented the Black beauty that Clorinda was never allowed to be.
Known for directing such cutting-edge operas as Doubt, Fellow Travelers, and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Newberry had no qualms about creating huge disconnects between his actors’ actions and the Italian they sang. Costume designer David C. Woolard was similarly liberated in attiring them, evoking Lawrence of Arabia more readily than Richard the Lion-Hearted. Water, sand, heavy rope, and four simple chairs supplanted onstage scenery at Dock Stage Theater, but Michael Commendatore’s steady stream of animated projection designs, coupled with the production’s supertitles, more than compensated for the sparseness onstage, keeping us awash in sensory overload. If you tried to keep pace with the supertitles on high, sometimes barely legible, you could easily be distracted from the action below.
Consulting your program booklet to determine what was being sung by which composer would only have compounded your confusion. Best to listen, look, and enjoy. For if this sensory-rich spectacle – laden with mysterious sand and water ceremony – strayed far from fulfilling Sulayman’s intentions, the music, the voices, and the dance yielded constant pleasure, wonder, and delight.
More touted and deliciously marketable, Giddens’ Omar proved to be more treasurable and on-task, providing tenor Jamez McCorkle with a career-making opportunity in the title role. Directing this stunning world premiere, director Kaneza Schall is laser-focused on the most pivotal event in Said’s life in America when, imprisoned in Fayetteville, he is released from jail and purchased by a benign master because of he has – miraculously, in the eyes of local yokels – written in Arabic script on the walls of his cell.
Written and printed language, from the floor upwards to the Sottile’s fly loft, is everywhere in Schall’s concept: dominant in Amy Rubin’s set, Joshua Higgason’s video, even permeating the costumes by April Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown. If you ever believed the libelous presumption that Africans were all brought to America bereft of any literacy, maintained in their pristine backwardness by their benevolent masters, Schall’s vision of Omar was here to brashly disabuse you.
And if you were under the impression that Africans came ashore in Charleston without any coherent Abrahamic religion, their poor souls yearning to be redeemed by the beneficence of Christianity, Giddens labored lovingly to enlighten you, the beauty and spirituality of her score enhanced by Abels’ deft orchestrations. As a librettist, Giddens could have benefited from some discreet assistance – and the challenge of scoring somebody else’s text. Melodious and religious as it is, Omar could stand to be a more dramatic opera, and as a librettist, Giddens could have usefully been more detailed.
Stressing Said’s spirituality, Giddens neglects his intellect, never referencing the range of his studies or the full spectrum of his manuscripts. Nor is there a full fleshing-out of why Said was imprisoned in Fayetteville or how it could be that Major General James Owen could take him home without returning the fugitive slave to his previous master, described in The Autobiography as “a small, weak, and wicked man, called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.”
The embellishments that Giddens gives us are all gorgeous. Owen’s daughter, Eliza, has a beautiful aria sung by Rebecca Jo Loeb, entreating her dignified dad to see the providence in Omar’s coming to their city. Further mentoring our hero, soprano Laquita Mitchell was Julie, a fellow slave in Fayetteville who will vividly remember her previous meeting with Omar at a Charleston slave auction. More majestically, mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis is a recurring presence as Omar’s mother, Fatima. Long after she is slain by the marauders who enslave Omar, she comes back to her son in a dream, warning him that Johnson is fast approaching to murder him. Mitchell and Lewis subsequently team up to urge Omar to write his story, a summit meeting with McCorkle that is the clear musical – and emotional – high point of the evening.
Plum roles also go to baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, who gets to sing both of Omar’s masters, the cruel and godless Johnson before intermission and the benign, bible-toting Owen afterwards. The question of whether Said sincerely converts from Islam to Christianity is pointedly left open. Notwithstanding his utter triumph, we probably have not seen the full magnificence that McCorkle can bring to Omar, for he was hobbled in the opening performances, wearing a therapeutic boot over his left ankle that I, for one, didn’t notice until he resurfaced as the highlight of the “Lift Every Voice” concert, bringing down the house with a powerful “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
Scanning the remainder of Spoleto’s classical offerings, I’m tempted to linger in the operatic realm, for Yuval Sharon’s upside-down reimagining of La bohème at Gaillard Center, despite its time-saving cuts to Act 2, completely overcame my misgivings about seeing Puccini’s four acts staged in reverse order. Yet there were more flooring innovations, debuts, and premieres elsewhere.
Program III of the chamber music series epitomized how the lunchtime concerts have evolved at Dock Street Theater under violinist and host Geoff Nuttall’s stewardship. Baritone saxophonist Steven Banks brought a composition of his, “As I Am,” for his debut, a winsome duet with pianist Pedja Muzijevic. Renowned composer Osvaldo Golijov, a longtime collaborator with Nuttall’s St. Lawrence Quartet, was on hand to introduce his Ever Yours octet, which neatly followed a performance of the work that inspired him, Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet, op. 76 no. 2.
Upstaging all of these guys was the smashing debut of recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus, playing three different instruments – often two simultaneously – on German composer Moritz Eggert’s Auẞer Atem for three recorders and one player. Equally outré and modernistic, More or Less for pre-recorded and live violin was a new composition by Mark Applebaum, customized for Livia Sohn (Nuttall’s spouse) while she was recuperating from a hand injury that only allowed her to play with two fingers on her left hand. If it weren’t bizarre enough to see Sohn on the Dock Street stage facing a mounted bookshelf speaker, the prankish Applebaum was on hand to drape the speaker in a loud yellow wig after the performance was done.
On the orchestral front, two works at different concerts wowed me. Capping a program at Gaillard which had featured works by György Ligeti and Edmund Thornton Jenkins, John Kennedy conducted Aiōn, an extraordinary three-movement work by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Hatching a soundworld that could be massively placid, deafeningly chaotic, weirdly unearthly, or awesome with oceanic majesty, Aiōn decisively quashed my urge to slip away to The Cistern for Coltrane and his luminous harpist, Brandee Younger. We were forced to arrive a full 30 minutes after that religious rite began.
My final event before saying goodbye to Spoleto 2022 treated me to sights I’d never seen before. On an all-Tyshawn Sorey program, Sorey ascended to the podium at Sottile Theatre and took us all to a pioneering borderland between composition and improvisation that he titled Autoschiadisms. Instead of a baton, Sorey brandished a sharpie beating time, sheets of typing paper with written prompts, or simply his bare hands making signals. Sometimes Sorey simply allowed the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra (splendid as usual) to run on autopilot while he huddled over his score, writing new prompts with his sharpie on blank pages before holding them high.
And the music was as wonderful as it was exciting, clearly an advance upon the other compositions on the bill, For Roscoe Mitchell and For Marcos Balter, conducted respectively by Kennedy and Kellen Gray. In the surreal aftermath of his triumphant premiere, Sorey had reason to linger onstage during a good chunk of the intermission. Musicians from the Orchestra swarmed him, waiting patiently for Sorey to autograph the sheets of paper that the composer had just used to lead them. The ink was barely dry where the MacArthur Genius of 2017 was obliged to write some more.