"Menotti is a sensationalist in the old style,
and in fact a weak one, diluting the faults of Strauss and Puccini with
none of their fugitive virtues" Thus decreed Joseph Kerman in his
highly influential 1956 book, ‘Opera as Drama’. Kerman had, in
fact, singled out The Saint of Bleeker Street for particularly
severe criticism, and Menotti’s reputation never fully recovered. From
his high point in the 1940s, when it seemed he could do no wrong, Menotti
in the ’50s seemed uncomfortably wedged between the extreme avant-garde-ism
of Cage and his disciples, and the explosive Broadway shows of Bernstein
and others. His style is often referred to as something between Puccini
and Hollywood, and that needn’t be disparaging. Now that we can view
artistic trends with a cool post-modernity, what Menotti was trying
to say can perhaps be appreciated with something like rational objectivity
– after all, Kerman had also famously lambasted Tosca as "a
shabby little shocker".
Not that it’s terribly easy to be too kind about Menotti’s
libretti, which (like Tippett’s) are his own, and often get the worst
flak. This particular opera has a story more difficult to take seriously
than other of his stage works, the best of which are imaginative flights
of fancy, or political allegories. This one clearly reflects the composer’s
own struggle with his faith. It takes place in the squalid tenements
of New York’s Little Italy, and centres around the supposed miraculous
visions of a young girl, and her eventual death in a state of ecstatic
bliss. Throw into the mix her low-life, sceptical brother, an assortment
of colourful street characters, religious street processions and basement
restaurants, and you could say we are in a kind of verismo operatic
Goodfellas. Well, not quite, and it’s a measure of the strength
of Menotti’s music that it alone largely saves the day.
The present recording is based, like most of Chandos’s
ongoing Menotti series, on performances at the Festival of Two Worlds
in Spoleto, the annual arts festival founded by the composer in 1958,
and still regarded as one of the highlights of the cultural year. This
means that the cast and orchestra are very well drilled by the current
artistic director, Richard Hickox, who clearly believes passionately
in the piece. There is an emotional intensity that never descends into
bathos, and the high points have a power that, in lesser hands, could
easily have become cheap, B-movie sentimentality. The musical language
is always tonal, and the orchestration redolent of the great Italian
operatic tradition that must have been in the composer’s blood. The
end result is something which should really find a willing audience,
with many good tunes, a sumptuously rich instrumental palette, and plenty
of emotional clout. This recording can do the composer’s cause no harm
The singing does vary slightly, but it has to be said
that many of the cast are relatively young and inexperienced – in fact,
it was always one of Menotti’s aims that this festival should help young
American and European artists to appear in world-class productions.
Carrying the brunt of the emotional weight is Julia Melinek as Anina,
a difficult part to bring off both vocally and as a characterization.
She acts convincingly, but the voice does begin to show stress in places,
with a wide vibrato beat becoming apparent at big climactic points.
For the most part though, she is more than up to the part; try the big
Act One aria ‘Ah, sweet Jesus, spare me this agony’, where one
is left in no doubt as to her inner turmoil. As her troubled brother
Michele, Timothy Richards sings well enough but struggles with an unnecessary
accent – he would have been better advised by the director to leave
it out altogether and just sing, rather than draw attention to the problem.
All the other main characters obviously relish their strong roles, and
the chorus are exemplary; try the wedding scene at the start of Act
Two, where the homage to Leoncavallo and Puccini seems at its strongest.
Menotti (or Mr. MacNotti, as he’s affectionately known
in his Scottish highland retreat) has long since given up caring what
critics make of his work. At a recent New York gala, given to celebrate
the fiftieth anniversary of his most popular opera Amahl and the
Night Visitors, he remarked "I don’t write operas any more,
because I’m not bothered by anything now. I’m not angry about anything.
I’ve not solved the problems of my faith or the Church. The question
marks are still there, but they don’t bother me that much". He
also took a typically realistic view on how posterity would judge his
work, particularly The Saint, "A composer can only be right
after his death. Only the future will say who is right or wrong…I have
a suspicion that [The Saint] will survive me and my critics."
Given the general excellence of this Chandos set, with clear, well-balanced
recording, full text and informative booklet, he could well be absolutely