Naxos are celebrating the Menotti centenary
by reissuing the early recordings of his operas and other works.
This is a valuable service as works that were so popular for a
time, in some quarters if not with all critics, have now virtually
disappeared from the stage. The Saint of Bleecker Street
set among the Italian immigrant community of New York and in essence
is about religious belief and unbelief. The central characters
are Annina, who wishes to become a nun and who is believed to
have the stigmata, and her brother Michele, who believes that
she is in fact sick and that the attention paid to her is harmful
to her. The plot combines religion, violence and a small amount
of sex, and can be regarded as a prime example of verismo
especially as it is set in a poor area of New York at the time
that it was written.
Its predecessors, The Medium
and The Consul
, also had contemporary settings. Both were understandably very successful in their concentration on a single theme. The Saint of Bleecker Street
is more diffuse in its subject and confused in its impact so that, despite winning a Pulitzer Prize (like The Consul
), it was much less popular both on its first run (an initial run of 92 performances) and at subsequent revivals. Whilst it is certainly musically more complex than its predecessors it lacks their sheer impact. The frequent reminders of earlier composers, especially Puccini but also Mussorgsky and even Massenet, serve less to show the lessons he had learnt from them than how much better they were as operatic composers. It is certainly skillfully written but compared with Menottis earlier successes it lacks memorable material and focus.
Similar comments apply to The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore
. The basic idea of producing a contemporary equivalent to the madrigal comedies of Banchieri and Vecchi was excellent, and the fable of a poet who keeps three fabulous creatures which represent various times in his life is potentially stimulating. Unfortunately the words, and even more the music, simply do not live up to the intentions. Certainly the music for a small chorus and an ensemble of nine instruments is varied and pleasant, but it lacks any special inventiveness and remains unmemorable throughout. The booklet points out that the composition of the music was left until the last moment. Rossini might have been able to get away with this but in this instance Menotti did not. It sounds for much of the time like a composer on auto-pilot.
The performances, both recorded soon after the works premieres, can be assumed to be authentic in style. None of the singers seem to regard beauty of tone as a priority but I must acknowledge the clarity of their diction, with appropriately strong American accents in the opera. This is important as the booklet contains only detailed synopses and libretti and scores are not easy to find. The recordings do show their age but have been sympathetically re-mastered and in no way prevent a sympathetic listener following or enjoying the works.
I am sorry to have written such a negative review. I had hoped that listening to these works after a long period of time might demonstrate merits I failed to see when I heard them first in the 1960s. Unfortunately that has not been the case, but I live in hope that seeing them in the theatre some day might still reveal unexpected effectiveness. Menotti was very much a man of the theatre and listening to them on disc inevitably gives only a partial picture of their character and merits.