VIDEO PODCAST: Discussion about Bernard Haitink (1929-2021), Salzburg, Roger Doyle's Finnegans Wake Project, the English Symphony Orchestra, the Chopin Competition Warsaw, Los Angeles Opera and other subjects in our hour-long November 2021 video.
In Rome, opera is performed not only at the Teatro dell'Opera but also in smaller houses. One of these is the Teatro Palladium, a lovely theatre built in the 1930s and now operated by the Roma 3 University. It has excellent acoustics and is perfect for modern chamber operas - see A 'Happy' Tragedy in Music & Vision Magazine, 16 November 2018 - such as American operas originally planned for university theatres.
On 2 October 2021, I saw and listened to La Medium which is the Italian version (approved by the composer and librettist) of The Medium, the first opera by Gian Carlo Menotti. It is a short (one-hour-long) two-act dramatic opera. Commissioned by the Alice M Ditson Fund at Columbia University, its first performance was there on 8 May 1946. The opera's first professional production was presented in a double bill with Menotti's The Telephone at the Heckscher Theatre, New York City, 18-20 February 1947. The Broadway production took place on 1 May 1947 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre with the same cast; it was a major hit. In addition, in 1951, Menotti directed, with the help of filmmaker Alexander Hammid, a film version. A live television production starring Marie Powers took place on 12 December 1948 on the TV series Studio One. It was filmed for Australian TV in 1960 too. Thus, it was quite successful then. In the United States, it is still often on the billboard. In Rome, the last performance was in 1960, but it was staged a few times at the Two Worlds Festival in Spoleto.
The current production is a joint venture between the Reate Festival (with its home at the Vespasiano Opera House in Rieti) and the opera houses of Savona and Trapani. In addition, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia provided the Novecento Ensemble conducted by Giovanni Di Stefano and Teatro dell'Opera helped with costumes. The Accademia Filarmonica Romana was involved too. The production will tour four Italian cities.
The plot is quite involved. It seems to be based on Menotti's recollection of a seance with a medium in London in 1936 which he and Samuel Barber attended because it developed in the home of their host.
In short, Monica, Madame Flora's daughter, and Toby, a mute servant boy and her lover, play dress-up. When Madame Flora, or 'Baba', arrives home drunk, she violently chastises them for not preparing for that night's seance. Soon the guests arrive: Mr and Mrs Gobineau, regulars, and the widow Mrs Nolan who is attending for the first time. With Madame Flora in a trance in her chair, a fake seance is held where Mrs Nolan speaks with what she thinks is her deceased sixteen-year-old daughter but is really Monica behind a screen. Mr and Mrs Gobineau 'communicate' with their deceased two-year-old son Mickey, who, having never learned to speak, only laughs. After they say goodbye to him, Madame Flora feels a phantom hand clutching her throat and is 'terror-stricken'. After demanding that the guests leave, she calls for Monica and tells her what she felt, eventually blaming Toby who was in the other room the whole time. In an effort to calm her, Monica sings her the dark lullaby 'The Black Swan'.
A few days later, Toby is giving a puppet show for Monica. When Baba comes home, she resumes her accusations on Toby. The guests again arrive, expecting another seance but are driven away by Madame Flora who tries to convince them that the whole thing was a sham. With everyone gone, and Monica in her room, Baba pours herself another drink and questions her own sanity, becoming wild with drink and eventually passing out. Once she has fallen asleep, Toby sneaks back in and tries to get into Monica's room, but finds it locked and eventually goes to the trunk to find his tambourine. While searching, he wakes Baba and hides in the puppet theatre. Baba tries to see where the noise came from and fetches a revolver and fires at it several times. As Toby's bloody body collapses, grasping the curtain, Baba says 'I've killed the ghost! I've killed the ghost!' Monica, hearing the gunshots, enters, sees Toby's lifeless body and runs for help. As the final curtain falls very slowly, Baba asks 'Was it you?'
The plot is a dark thriller. The music fits it perfectly. A diatonic score with a lot of rhythm and melodic abandonments where the strings have a major role. Some critics said that it was not innovative enough. However, Menotti never searched for innovation or experimental music but just for a good score that would fit the drama like a glove. There are, of course, arias such as 'Monica's Waltz' (Monica), 'The Black Swan' (Monica) and 'Afraid, am I afraid?' (Baba). In many aspects, this Menotti operatic debut sets a path for modern American operas such as those by Jake Heggie.
The stage direction by Cesare Scarton made the thriller intense; it captured every minute of the audience's attention. The set by Michele Dalla Cioppa, the costumes by Anna Biagiotti and the lighting by Andrea Tocchio were all effective. The Novecento Ensemble depicted the drama very well.
The vocal parts show that this is a women's opera. The alto Manuela Custer as Ms Flora was superb. Eleonora Bellocci as Monica was very good. Sabrina Cortese and Stefano Marchisio (Mrs and Mr Gobineau) and Angela Schisano (Mrs Nola) were also good in their roles. Andrea Sorentino as Toby is a very good mime.
The theatre was full - the applause very warm.
Copyright © 6 October 2021