Tag Archives: Livia Sohn

Black Lives Really Do Matter in Spoleto’s Stirring Counter-Crusade

Review: Opera, Chamber, and Orchestral Music @ Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

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.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

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.2022~Spoleto-142

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.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

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.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

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.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

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.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

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.”Screenshot 2022-06-27 at 16-55-14 Spoleto Opera Honors An Extraordinary Slave Whose Life Mattered Classical Voice North America

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.”Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

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.52126095047_f231ab5e32_o

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.

2022~Spoleto-238.jpg

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 Auer 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.2022~Spoleto-260

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.2022~Spoleto-273

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.

Spoleto Ends an Era With Infusions of New Works and Artists

Review:  “Spoleto is back!”

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

51224315640_e101915ab2_o-1

When Martha Teichner spoke with Nigel Redden over the Memorial Day weekend, there were three major takeaways from the Spoleto Festival USA general director – in what will stand as his exit interview for most of us in the live or online audience. As we might have guessed, setting up the 2021 festival has been notably awkward after the cancellation last year’s 17-day event: if Redden and his staff had anticipated how quickly vaccinations would open up Charleston’s indoor venues, Spoleto scheduling could have been more robust.

Because this year’s festival is so downsized after the hiatus, Redden also stated, next year’s festival will be pivotal for Spoleto’s survival. The normal balance between popular and outré events will need to be skewed toward the cash cows. Staying on until October but keeping his hands off the search for his successor, Redden will certainly play a key role in framing the 2022 lineup.

Notably modest about his impact and achievements during his most recent 26-year tenure – and his prior stint at the helm from 1986 to 1991 – Redden was surprisingly frank about his decision to step down. He pointed unhesitatingly to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement that arose amid the turbulence of 2020 and, more specifically, to the manifesto issued by the We See You White American Theatre coalition of BIPOC theatre artists demanding radical, immediate, and long overdue reforms.

Or to those willing to overlook the often-scathing tone and occasional militancy of the 29-page “Accountability Report” and its demands, WSYWAT was offering a blueprint on how to create an anti-racist American Theatre. Though not primarily a theatre person, Redden saw himself checking two major boxes in the laundry list of justifiable grievances, the color of his skin and the length of his reign.

What Redden said back in September, that the cancellation of the 2020 Spoleto and enforced isolation had weighed heavily upon him, sounded right for a press release. This more recent elucidation sounds right for Redden. We can see a continuous line of white males at the helms of various sectors of Spoleto since its opening season in 1977, beginning with festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti leading the student orchestra, Charles Wadsworth hosting the lunchtime chamber music concerts, and Joseph Flummerfelt leading the Westminster Choir.

The younger men carrying on their tradition are notably more adventurous in their programming, Joe Miller leading Westminster, Geoff Nuttall hosting the chamber music at Dock Street Theatre, and John Kennedy wearing one of the two hats worn by Menotti as resident conductor of the orchestra. Since the Westminster is a separate entity from Spoleto and Nuttall was Wadsworth’s hand-picked successor, Redden’s hand in pushing the festival to a fuller embrace of new and contemporary music was most emphatic in his appointment of Kennedy.

Yet the international tone and resources of the festival have led Kennedy to widen his horizons in recent years, and an unmistakable tidal shift has occurred in the choral and chamber music programming as well, now permeated with contemporary repertoire and studded with world premieres. COVID restrictions have kept Kennedy and Miller away from Spoleto for two seasons now, relegated to digital presentations on YouTube during this year’s festival – video self-portraits and bite-sized performances that will linger online through June 18. So it has been Nuttall’s responsibility to carry the torch in live events for the 2021 season, reasserting the festival’s right to be recognized among the world’s preeminent champions of new music.

Nine of the 11 programs at this year’s festival (each one is repeated three times) are showcasing works by living composers, including five pieces by composers appearing live at Dock Street Theatre, and four world premieres. Most of these were clustered at the top end of the schedule, making tickets – tough to score on opening weekends of all Spoletos – particularly tight in this atypical year of social distancing. So we were obliged to miss all four live performances of works by this year’s composer-in-residence, Jessica Meyer, and asked to limit our requests for press seats to one concert.

51237256635_891351fef7_o

Turning my attention to the second of Spoleto’s three weekends, I had little difficulty settling on my choice: Program VII, the return of cellist Alisa Weilerstein to the festival in the world premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s Milonga. With Beethoven’s Septet in E flat on the same program, I would also get to see five players I’d never seen before at Dock Street.

Hoping against hope, I also requested Program VIII: more Alisa Weilerstein – again paired with pianist Inon Barnatan – and the return of Anthony Roth Costanzo, the superstar countertenor, beloved at Spoleto years before the huge éclat of his Met Opera debut. “Nothing ventured…,” right? My first choice was granted. Although Costanzo’s return was solidly sold-out for all three of its iterations, my chutzpah was rewarded with an offer to choose between two additional programs.

51224005159_3f4cd34198_o

Had I known that violinist Livia Sohn, Nuttall’s spouse, would be returning from a hand injury in Program III to premiere a Meyer composition written specially for her, From Our Ashes, my choice of her subsequent appearance in Program V would have been easier to make. That concert included the Handel Oboe Concerto in G minor and Saint-Saëns’ fearsome “Hippogriff” violin sonata, with a contemporary wildcard in between them, Kenji Bunch’s The 3 Gs for solo viola.

Whether he’s anticipating next season’s make-or-break festival or simply realizing that much of what he does on the Dock Street stage will endure in perpetuity on YouTube, where excerpts of every concert are streamed as little as one day after a program bows out, Nuttall has noticeably sharpened his emceeing. Simply watch the streamed excerpts of Program VII and you’ll see.

To gin up excitement for Golijov’s Milonga, Nuttall not only hailed the return of the Weilerstein-Barnatan duo and the stature of the composer, he brought on hornist David Byrd-Marrow to help demonstrate the two rhythms clashing with each other in the piece. These two rhythms, the 3-3-2 pattern of the milonga and the 4/4 of Joseph Achron’s “Hebrew Melody” (written for Jascha Heifetz), repeatedly diverging and converging, personify the composer himself and his Argentinian/Jewish heritage.

Before bringing Byrd-Marrow on, Nuttall mocked himself a little by confessing that Barnatan had suggested that he demonstrate the milonga beat with one hand and the 4/4 with the other – a “total fail,” he recounted, when he made the attempt. At the end of the demo, having said that the two rhythms bumped against each other, Nuttall and Byrd-Marrow actually finished back-to-back, bumping each other.

In short, Nuttall scorns the seriousness of “setting the mood” in favor of trying to make his enthusiasm contagious. Remarkably, this humorous approach worked for a melancholy piece, cuing us to look for something we would surely find. That turned out to be chiefly Achron’s tune and Golijov’s variations on it, for Weilerstein is such a mesmerizing and rapturous performer that I gladly dwelled in the soul of Jewish melody while I was at Dock Street Theatre, mostly oblivious to the countercurrent of Barnatan’s Argentinian flavorings at the keyboard. That friction was more readily savored a day later when the YouTube replay was released.

Nuttall analyzed the Septet in a manner that would have pleased Wadsworth, but he added a couple of layers: the wild popularity of the piece, which eventually annoyed the more mature Beethoven, and his own iconoclastic preference for early Beethoven over the more widely admired masterworks of the middle and late periods. The sunniness of the music and the fecundity of melody, Nuttall extravagantly predicted, would surely send us off into the streets singing and dancing.

The Septet was a wonderful chance to see most of the newcomers in action, including bassoonist Monica Ellis, violinist Jennifer Frautschi, violist Ayane Kozasa, cellist Arlen Hlusko, and Byrd-Marrow. While this genial romp gave Byrd-Marrow a merry workout on the French horn with repeated hunting calls, the chief protagonists were Frautschi and clarinetist Todd Palmer, facing off at opposite sides of the stage. Palmer was as jocund and propulsive as ever, leading the woodwinds, while Frautschi was liveliness, intensity, and joy leading the strings. Anthony Manzo, like Palmer a longtime fixture at Spoleto, stood like a pillar between the two sections, genially keeping time on the double bass.

51237256305_a9be5d159b_o

Frautschi had already distinguished herself in the “Hippogriff,” lavishing her bold fruity tone on the Saint-Saëns sonata with even greater intensity, zest, and decisiveness, bringing Program V to a triumphant conclusion. Peak ferocity was reached minutes after the notorious torrent of 704 sixteenth notes that begin the closing Allegro Molto, when Frautschi and pianist Pedja Muzijevic, already red-lining the tempo, turned on the turbojets.

Ignoring the note count of the frantic Allegro Molto, Nuttall cited it as among the greatest moments in all of chamber music and asserted that Saint-Saëns is inexplicably underrated in the pantheon of great composers, a genius in the Mozart mold. His intro for the Handel concerto was more droll, embarrassing oboist Smith by floating the idea of celebrating his manly beauty by making him a centerfold in a Spoleto swimsuit calendar. Then he prevailed on Smith to demonstrate how Handel expected his featured soloists to improvise. To contrast, Nuttall now invited all the musicians onstage, instead of playing their written parts, to improvise behind Smith as he repeated his little performance.

Cacophony. A bad idea – illustrating the Baroque balance Handel adhered to. One of Nuttall’s cornier shticks.

Like Wadsworth before him, Nuttall doesn’t scorn pedagogy altogether. He seemed to revel, in fact, in teaching us the concept of scordatura, purposeful mistuning, as violist Hsin-Yun Huang prepared to make her Spoleto debut soloing on Bunch’s The 3 Gs. Nuttall and Huang showed us the normal tuning of her instrument from top to bottom, A-D-G-C, and how Bunch would be obliging the violist to retune two of strings to an A-G-G-G configuration.

Then a parting shot for us to mull over as Nuttall exited to the wings: “Hsin-Yun will never be closer to Jimi Hendrix as you are about to see her.” We soon realized what he had meant – and why there was a piano bench onstage next to Huang. Strums on the strings were the easiest of Bunch’s demands on the violist’s right hand in the hectic opening section of his piece. A sprinkling and then a barrage of finger taps on the four strings and along the fingerboard launches the solo, utilizing three or four fingers and making it impossible to grasp a bow.

When the piece did permit Huang to pick up her bow from its resting place on the piano bench, the music moved slightly closer to Hendrix, settling in a region somewhere between jazz and bluegrass, a bit funky and definitely appealing – with plenty of ricochet and double bowing to test the soloist’s mettle. In the video excerpt, which remains free online through June 18, Huang’s exploits on viola are followed almost instantly by Frautschi’s bravura in the Saint-Saëns finale, a rather remarkable sequence.

51236402383_d39b604ab7_o

Three of the four Jessica Meyer works featured at Spoleto this year are also preserved on the streamable excerpts. Sohn’s comeback is predictably captured, as is “American Haiku,” cellist Paul Wiancko’s touching tribute to his wife, Kozasa, and their mixed heritages, which the couple performed in a memorable cello-viola duet. Kozasa is even more impressive in Program IV, where she teams with Palmer – at the top of his game – and Muzijevic in Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio. None of that performance is omitted. Nuttall’s intro, a typical mix of humor and nostalgia, will tell you why.

Redden’s valedictory season will have a momentous afterword when the curtain goes up fully again in 2022. Then we will finally behold the world premiere of Omar, the new opera by Rhiannon Giddens. Originally scheduled for a 2020 premiere, Omar is based on the autobiography, written in Arabic, of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim-African man who was enslaved and transported to Charleston. The twice-postponed premiere will be a final testament that Redden’s vision for Spoleto is grounded in diversity – and firmly rooted in Charleston’s chequered history.

 

Gaillard Grandeur and Dock Street Informality Shape a New Spoleto

Review: Spoleto Festival USA – 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

For the past two years at Spoleto Festival USA, opera has been the bellwether of how this massive festiv

al of the performing arts – including theatre, jazz, dance, symphonic and chamber music – has been changing and evolving. In 2015, opera programming untethered itself from its customary balance of new works with outré offerings from recognized masters. The tandem of Paradise Interrupted in its world premiere and Veremonda in its American debut underscored the transformation of Spoleto into the world’s leading showcase for new and/or different classical music.

Last year, what seemed like a move toward more populist programming, with Porgy and Bess as the marquee opera and an increased presence of American jazz artists, did not affect a continuing drift toward more modernist music. What the Porgy and Bess celebration of the festival’s 40th season really signaled was that, with the radical facelift to the reopened Gaillard Center, truly grand productions of grand operas were now possible in Charleston, SC.

Even before the Gaillard closed down for its makeover after the 2012 season, it was clear that, from a technical standpoint, only lackluster stagings could be expected there. Gustave Charpentier’s Louise had been the last operatic attempt in 2009. During the renovations, you could be charmed by Spoleto’s productions of Kát’a Kabanová and Le Villi at Sottile Theatre, but you could hardly pretend they were on a grand scale.

With this year’s presentation of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, grand lyric opera was emphatically enthroned at the festival, although I suspect there were budgetary constraints in the wake of last year’s anniversary extravagances. Now that might not explain why there was no bed, no window, and no writing desk – all mentioned in the libretto – for Tatyana’s famed letter scene. Why would stage director Chen Shi-Zheng’s austerity extend to depriving the poor woman of pen and paper until after she has finished writing?

Suspicions came unbidden when, after a snowbound video of a Russian forest ran over the overture, spindly trunks of wintry trees descended from the fly lofts and haunted nearly the entire production. The concept didn’t jibe with arrival of the family estate’s peasants heralding their completion of the harvest. More puzzling, the lovely trees were whisked to the wings prior to the scene where they might make the most sense, the duel between Onegin and the hotheaded poet Lensky.

Projections that replaced the trees for the duel and for the ultimate denouement, where he receives his richly deserved rejection from Tatyana, were actually darkly effective. But the best use of set designer Christopher Barreca’s trees came when, half-lifted into the flies and colorfully illuminated, they simulated chandeliers at the regal ball in Prince Gremin’s palace, where Onegin is thunderstruck by the transformation of Tatyana into a poised and polished aristocrat.

Whatever toll austerity might have taken on the scenery, it was not a factor in the singing. Taxed with delivering the letter scene with no props except a chair (those lingering tree trunks did fill up momentarily with projections of Tatyana’s handwriting), soprano Natalia Pavolova glowed with youthful longing in her American debut. She was hardly less impressive as a mature princess, bearing herself imperially in the ballroom, and her creamy voice thickened pleasingly with emotion in the final tête-à-tête with Onegin. Lacking the hauteur I saw from Dmitri Hvorostovsky when I saw him in the role opposite Renee Fleming, baritone Franco Pomponi was less of a cold-hearted jerk when Onegin rejected Tatyana and killed Lensky – and more pitiable when he comprehended his mistakes.

Solid as he was vocally, Pomponi was thoroughly upstaged by tenor Jamez McCorkle as Lensky. The pride and pathos that McCorkle brought to Lensky’s final pre-duel meditations were shattering. Nearly as touching – and as vocally powerful – baritone Peter Volpe’s weighty, twilit confessions to Onegin as Prince Gremin were the perfect prelude to the cad’s comeuppance.

Acoustics at the new 1,800-seat facility helped to keep the front-liners relaxed, unless they had the misfortune of singing from the rear half of the stage, which introduced a noticeable echo effect. Clarity and presence improve markedly for the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra when it ascends from the pit to the stage, where it is wrapped in a tall, wood-grained shell and covered by a sloped and sculpted acoustic ceiling.

With the addition of the Westminster Choir conducted by Joe Miller, the worthy heir to Joseph Flummerfelt, orchestral concerts have also grown grander in recent years. Ramping up to the return of the Gaillard, Miller and the Westminsters presented the St. Matthew Passion at the Sottile in 2015 before helping to break in the new hall last year with Beethoven’s Mass in C and his Choral Fantasy. Once again mixing the sacred with the secular at the Gaillard, Miller programmed Mozart’s unfinished “Great” Mass in C Minor, preceded by two Ralph Vaughan Williams settings, one for Psalm 90 (“Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge” and the other from the moonlit Act 5 love scene that punctuates the hurly-burly of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (“Serenade to Music”).

Augmented by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, the Westminster Choir sounded massive and sure, and the Festival Orchestra, culled from advanced conservatory students and young professionals through nationwide auditions, still strikes me as the best American orchestra of its kind. The bigger sound of the choir made the “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge” more soothing and cosmic, building to a majestic finish. An exquisite dialogue between orchestra and vocalists followed in the Shakespeare setting, as six of the Westminster choristers then came downstage and formed a mini-choir, joining the four guest artists who would sing in the Mozart.

It was gratifying to see McCorkle again after his fine Lensky, but once again, he didn’t draw a leading role in the Mass after shining briefly in the “Serenade.” Mozart began this liturgical piece as a showcase for his wife, Constanza, and soprano Sherezade Panthaki shone in much of the coloratura spotlight that he managed to finish, especially when powering the climax of the Credo. Soprano Clara Rottsolk ably complemented Panthaki in the Gloria, and bass André Courville rounded out the quartet of soloists in the concluding Benedictus.

Of course, there was nothing miniscule about the other orchestral concert, beginning with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s icily atmospheric Dreaming and climaxing with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Following up brilliantly on her lustrous 2013 debut in the title role of Matsukaze, soprano Pureum Jo filled the folksy jollity of the Sehr behaglich (“Very comfortable”) finale with a heavenly purity.

Yet I found myself even more encouraged and excited by what’s happening in the chamber music sector of the festival. For the first time since taking over the reins of the daily chamber music series in 2010, violinist Geoff Nuttall had to acknowledge the absence of his mentor and predecessor, Charles Wadsworth, on the mend up in New York. As host and programmer of the lunchtime Dock Street Theatre concerts, Nuttall has come into his own, greatly increasing the amount of modern and contemporary music that is played while chipping away at the barrier that previously distinguished the genial, comical, and witty introductions to the music from the formality of the performances that followed.

There’s likely a connection between the two developments. When a percussionist provides the entire audience with pairs of rocks to bang together during a performance of new music, or a composer triggers video and sound cues with an iPhone, formality begins to break down. The effect spread to more antique music when countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo called attention to the kinship between a Vivaldi aria and Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel.”

Performances have sprouted a jocular dimension here and there, thanks to the deployment of clarinetist Todd Palmer as comedian-in-chief. After Nuttall spoke vividly of Giovanni Bottesini’s virtuosic displays on double bass during operas that he conducted in the mid-1800’s, appearing mid-performance to dazzle with improvised fantasias on tunes from that evening’s opera, Palmer joined double bassist Anthony Manzo and pianist Gilles Vonsattel in Bottesini’s Duetto for Clarinet and Double Bass with Piano. Between two of the fantasias, Palmer did a riff of his own on the diva aspects of the spoken intro, flashing some leg and modeling a sock that was more flamboyant than any I’ve seen on even Nuttall’s feet.

There was more later as Nuttall and his St. Lawrence String Quartet joined Manzo, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, and pianist Pedja Muzijevic in a cunning reduction of Symphony No. 100 by Haydn, our host’s favorite composer. As Nuttall explained how this “Military” Symphony came by its nickname, you had to wonder where the hellish percussive roar would come from when the second movement started. The answer came during the interval between the opening Adagio-Allegro and the signature Allegretto: emerging from the wings, Palmer marched onstage – literally marched, mind you – harnessed into a big bass marching drum and brandishing two mallets.

It was actually a military parade, since cellist Joshua Roman with a pair of cymbals and violinist Benjamin Bellman with a wee triangle marched in right behind Palmer. Earlier in the concert, right after the Bottesini, these two accomplices had given an absolutely delicious account of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. If anything, the exit after Haydn’s second movement, led again by Palmer, was even more ceremonial. Yet there were more surprises to come. Violinist Daniel Phillips (flutist O’Connor’s husband) heralded the opening passages of the Presto finale from the balcony, and Palmer’s percussion trio resurfaced at the rear of the hall to pound, clang, and clink the final measures.

Musically, Palmer’s shining moments came three programs earlier when he played the Beethoven Clarinet Trio with Muzijevic and Roman, while the best of Nuttall came when he led an inspired performance of the Mendelssohn Octet. Some of the inspiration no doubt came from the meet-up between Nuttall’s St. Lawrence Quartet and his newest Spoleto recruits, the Rolston String Quartet. They won the Banff International String Quartet Competition 24 years after the elder Canadian quartet won the same prize in 1992. There were moments when Rolston cellist Jonathan Lo and violist Hezekiah Leung gazed upon Nuttall’s rapt antics – his back-and-forth swaying on the first chair and his spasmodic knee-lifts – with undisguised, wide-eyed wonder, apparently unaware that he played with the same abandon, eccentricity, and charisma when he first came to Spoleto in 1995. Except that his hair was longer then.

Effects of Nuttall’s stewardship now extend beyond the Dock Street Theatre. Two of the chamber music pianists had concerts booked at other venues. Muzijevic, who also traveled to Hamburg to select the new Steinway for the Dock Street series, fashioned a set of “Haydn Dialogues” at the Simons Center Recital Hall – four Papa pieces interspersed with works by Jonathan Berger, Morton Feldman, and (with an alternate prepared piano) John Cage. Stephen Prutsman put on his composing hat at Woolfe Street Playhouse, plucking a string quartet from the Festival Orchestra to score three silent films, “Suspense,” “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” and “Mighty Like a Moose.”

For the past two years, Nuttall has performed at Gaillard Center in chamber music segments of Spoleto Celebration Concerts, further extending his presence. He and his spouse, violinist spouse Livia Sohn formed half of a quartet, including Muzijevic and St. Lawrence cellist Christopher Costanza, in a reduced adaptation from Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico concertos. Until 2013, when oboist James Austin Smith joined his chamber music stable, Nuttall was no more likely to program Vivaldi’s music than Wadsworth was, let alone play it.

What really brought Vivaldi to centerstage at Spoleto was the sensation that countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo created last season in his first three programs at Dock Street. Costanzo didn’t sing Vivaldi then, ranging instead from Handel to Gershwin to Osvaldo Golijov, but it was obvious to he could sing the Red Priest’s rep with a vengeance. Having Costanzo on board to play the title role made it easy to green-light the American premiere of Vivaldi’s Farnace, the most popular of the composer’s operas during his lifetime.

You had to be able to accept the old-timey ethos of death before dishonor to the point of absurdity if you were to reach the end of Antonio Lucchini’s 1727 libretto without guffaws or derisive laughter. Dethroned from the kingdom of Pontus by invaders from Rome, Farnace orders his queen Tamiri to kill their son and herself to avoid the disgrace of captivity. Meanwhile Farnace and his captive sister Selinda separately plot to bring down their conquerors, Roman general Pompeo and his merciless ally, Queen Berenice of Cappadocia, a gargoyle who turns out to be Tamiri’s mom.

Somehow everything sorted out happily. More amazingly, Costanzo managed to bring down the house just before intermission – bemoaning the death of the angelic little son whom he himself condemned to death!

With Costanzo singing two additional Vivaldi arias at the lunchtime concerts and Smith fronting an oboe concerto, the Red Priest explosion was major theme in Spoleto’s 2017 classical music lineup. But the countertenor continued to show his wide range. What I most regretted about skipping the final weekend in Charleston was seeing Costanzo introduce and deliver Roy Orbison’s deathless “Crying!” An 11-piece ensemble, including Palmer and Nuttall, was weeping behind him. Or maybe not.