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Thread: Jephte / The Little Match Girl Passion at the Spoleto Festival USA

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Jephte / The Little Match Girl Passion at the Spoleto Festival USA

    On May 30th, 2015 I attended at Emmett Robinson Theatre at College of Charleston, NC, part of the Spoleto Festival USA, the double bill of Giacomo Carissimi's (1605-74) oratorio for soloists and chorus Jephte, and David Lang's (b. 1957) contemporary piece for chorus (coupled with modern dance) The Little Match Girl Passion, performed by The Westminster Choir conducted by Joe Miller (with dancers Kaitlyn Gilliland and Max van der Sterre for the second piece). Lighting designer was by Andrew R. Cissna and Stage Management by Ruth Anne Watkins.

    David Lang's piece has a text in English by the composer, after H.C. Andersen, H. P. Paul, Picander (Bach's librettist), and Saint Matthew. The dancing part was a world premiere and was choreographed by Pontus Lidberg, with costumes by Reid and Harriet. The music is for chorus, drum, and xylophone.

    Carissimi's oratorio which is considered to be his masterpiece, has a libretto based on a passage from the text of the Latin Vulgate Bible, Judges 11:19-38 and is sung partially in Latin, partially in Italian. Student singer of the Westminster Choir College (a division of Rider University's Westminster College of the Arts in Princeton, NJ) Thomas Lynch sang the title role, and his fellow student Olivia Greene sung the other main character, his daughter. Various other student singers sang the numerous secondary roles.

    While the production had the downside of a lack of supertitles (I overheard numerous patrons complaining of it) and Jephte wasn't without a couple of flaws (notably with the singer in the role of the daughter suffering from less-than-ideal pitch control and poor diction - of course we do give her a pass since she is a student and likely will still perfect her technique - while the title role was well sung and the chorus as a whole was really, really good), it was a rather amazing late afternoon/early evening of sublime music and dance.

    Both pieces are extremely beautiful. Jephte is a poignant and highly melodious piece about the Israelite captain Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter in exchange for the victory over the Ammonites, with the description of the battle, the song of victory, a revelation scene between father and daughter, the daughter's lament, and a final choral apotheosis.

    The Little Match Girl's Passion combines vocal music that reminds me of Glass (repetitious, minimalistic) with rhythmic drum beats and xylophone pings that enhance the dramatic tension. I was so taken by the beauty of this composition that I went online to listen to it again from other performances, and was disappointed to see that most versions instead of a full chorus use only four singers (apparently the composer did publish two versions, one just for the soloists, and one with the full chorus - the latter is significantly more beautiful, in my opinion, since the multitude of voices functions as an orchestration of sorts), not to mention that microphone placement in most of these clips is terrible and you just can't hear the two percussion instruments, which were loud and clear in the live theater and were a *very* essential element of this exquisite piece. I do not recommend the idea of listening to this on YouTube or even the purchase of the one recording of it (listening to excerpts I was equally disappointed), lest one will get the wrong idea about this piece that is so much more fabulous with the full sound of a live presentation!

    Also, the addition of dance was an extremely clever idea, and the online versions don't have it, of course (as mentioned, this part of the piece was a world premiere); much less the CD, naturally. With only two shows (the one I saw, and another performance the next day) and no visible cameras recording the event (at least none that I could see), those who saw it, saw it; unlucky others won't be able to experience this mesmerizing, magical piece done this way, unless it's given again elsewhere, the same way, by the same artists (or colleagues with the same level of talent) and recorded on DVD.

    I hope it happens, because, my friends, this was something! I spent a weekend in Charleston and watched two very good operas (see on the Opera House and Theater Performance Reviews forum my review of Veremonda, and the upcoming review of Paradise Interrupted), and as much as those were incredibly good, the piece that is forever marked in searing fire in my memory is The Little Match Girl Passion, which qualifies as one of the most striking moments I've had in my "career" of patron of the arts who periodically attends opera, modern dance, and symphonic pieces (although unfortunately the latter have been less frequent, so busy I've been with opera).

    David Lang used the Passion format - the telling of a story while simultaneously commenting upon it, always tragic (thus the use of the Latin word for "suffering") - inspired by Bach's Saint Matthew's Passion, but the music has no trace of the master's style. Hans Christian Andersen's well known story of the Little Match Girl who tries to sell matches but is ignored by the crowd and freezes to death, then is transfigured, functions as the basis of the text. Members of the Westminster Choir crossed the stage one-by-one or two-by-two (while singing), left to right, right to left, reproducing a busy street, and bumping into the female dancer who rendered to perfection the girl's suffering, not only showing acting prowess in her facial expressions, but also possessing phenomenally beautiful precision of movements and agility, gifts that her male partner shares as well. Acclaimed Swiss choreographer Pontus Lidberg produced a very fine visual illustration of the story. Again, just like in the first piece, the Westminster Choir was wonderful.

    This was a show of extraordinary artistic value (A+ for Jephte and A++ for The Little Match Girl Passion) and I feel very privileged for having witnessed it upfront and close.

    Again, I was extremely impressed with the stratospheric artistic level of the Spoleto Festival USA, and I look forward to returning next year.

    I was told that no production pictures exist for this event so I can't show to our dear readers the visual appeal of this great double bill.

    The Westminster Choir, photo credit Spoleto Festival USA:

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    This is the outstanding Kaitlyn Gilliland who performed the dancing role of The Little Match Girl, here in a picture from her years at the New York City Ballet (2006-11); credit under the picture, fair promotional use. She is currently with the Pontus Lidberg Dance Company, which she joined in 2014.

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    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); June 3rd, 2015 at 11:46 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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