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Gian Carlo MENOTTI (1911-2007)
The Medium [65:13]
Julija Samsonova-Khayet (mezzo-soprano) – Baba/Mme Flora; Marily Santoro (soprano) – Monica; Lorenzo Grante (baritone) – Mr Gobineau; Chiara Isotton (soprano) – Mrs Gobineau; Roxana Herrera Diaz (soprano) – Mrs Nolan; Arianna Manganello (soprano) – Voice off-stage
The Telephone, or L’amour à trois [24:58]
Elizabeth Hertzberg (soprano) – Lucy; Lorenzo Grante (baritone) – Ben
Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana/Flavio Emilio Scogna
rec. Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti, Modena, Italy, 2018
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95361 [65:13 + 24:58]

Like, I suspect, many others, I have a distant memory of watching Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas one-acter Amahl and the Night Visitors as a child on TV. These days, though, you don’t come across very much of his music, certainly if you don’t live in the United States. And there’s not a huge amount of it on disc either: this, indeed, is the first recording for more than seventy years to reunite both parts of the double bill that met with great success on Broadway in 1947. By the way, that classic original cast recording, made in October of the same year, is now available again on Naxos (8111370).

Not that the two operas were originally conceived as a pair. The Medium came first. Based at least indirectly on events Menotti had experienced on holiday in Austria in 1936, its première took place at Columbia University in May 1946. It’s plainly too short to fill an evening, however; and, prior to its opening in New York in February 1947, Menotti was asked to provide – at great speed – an appropriate curtain-raiser. The result was The Telephone.

The two pieces are in many ways dissimilar. The Medium, described as “a Tragedy in Two Acts”, centres on a money-making fake séance put on by Baba (professional name Mme Flora) with the help of her sweet-natured daughter Monica and the rather shadowy mute boy Toby, whom she has apparently rescued from the streets of Budapest. As the séance proceeds, Baba feels the touch of a cold hand on her throat; and this disturbs her to a remarkably profound degree. She trembles with fear, stamps her feet and loudly dismisses her customers; and by the time we see her again a few nights later, in Act II, she has all too plainly turned to drink and is behaving in an increasingly unhinged fashion. Suspecting the unfortunate Toby of being responsible for the touch on the throat, she berates and threatens him; he hides behind a curtain; she falls asleep; he accidentally wakes her up; and – to cut a long story short – she ends up shooting him, under the impression that he is a ghost. No shortage of melodramatic verismo, then; but Menotti is quoted in the Brilliant Classics booklet as claiming that “despite its eerie setting and gruesome conclusion, The Medium is actually a play of ideas. It describes the tragedy of a woman caught between two worlds, a world of reality which she cannot wholly comprehend, and a supernatural world in which she cannot believe. She has no scruples in cheating her clients… until something happens which she herself has not prepared. This insignificant incident, which she is not able to explain, shatters her self-assurance and drives her almost insane with fear”. It’s all about control and the destructive fear of being out of it, in other words – and I think Menotti, helped enormously by the fact that he was his own librettist, and a very able one, succeeds in conveying these underlying ideas very persuasively.

The Telephone, by contrast, is a positively frothy comedy. Well before the advent of the now omnipresent cellular device, it seems, phones were addictive. Which is a bit of a shame if the addict in question is your beloved, to whom you want to propose before your train leaves in an hour’s time. We witness the girl in question, Lucy, making or taking a sequence of some five calls (including a wrong number and an enquiry to the Speaking Clock) in swift succession; and we witness her love-lorn swain, Ben, becoming increasingly frustrated with this state of affairs – until he thinks up a spiffing wheeze of his own. He goes outside to a call box (remember them?), he phones in his proposal, she accepts it, she makes sure he notes down her number, he promises to call her every day, and they both – we assume – live happily ever after. It’s lovely stuff, and by no means unsophisticated – thanks again in no small measure to Menotti’s skill as a librettist. He has the consistently strong idea of referring to the telephone in implicitly human terms, making it seem a real threat to the couple’s happiness and a dangerous rival for poor Ben. And he has a very neat turn of phrase: “I’d rather contend with lover, husband, or in-laws”, Ben says at one point, “than this two-headed monster who comes unasked and devours my day. For this thing can’t be poisoned or drowned. It has hundreds of lives and miles of umbilical cord”. Very nicely and thought-provokingly turned, and you can’t help feeling sorry for the poor guy.

One way and another, then, Menotti is a librettist of considerable skill and an unerring sense of theatre. But what about his music? Well, to me it sounds consistently good, but never great. It was mean-spirited of Pierre Boulez to call Menotti “the poor man’s Puccini”, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. The music is always enjoyable, tuneful, approachable, quite often witty, sometimes exciting; but it’s just not memorable. Nor is it particularly individual. In his note Gianluigi Mattietti points to the influence on Menotti of Mussorgsky, Debussy and Stravinsky, alongside Puccini. That’s doubtless true, though to me Menotti always somehow sounds American. In particular – hardly surprisingly, given that they lived together for many decades – I get powerful echoes of Samuel Barber, along with the nagging sense that Menotti wasn’t quite as good as him.

It’s time to talk about the performances. The first thing to note about the singers is that they’re all young – chosen from participants in a masterclass given by the eminent Bulgarian soprano Raina Kabaivanska, in Modena in 2018. This is rather a mixed blessing: we have, for example, two ideally youthful-sounding lyric sopranos as Monica and Lucy; a pleasing young baritone who is fine for Ben but insufficiently middle-aged for Mr Gobineau; and a highly impressive mezzo, Julija Samsonova-Khayet, who makes an estimable stab at the gift of a part that is Baba, but comes across as just too young and inexperienced to do it full justice.

The second thing to say about the singers is that only one, the American soprano Elizabeth Hertzberg, is a native English-speaker; and that most of the others, hardly surprisingly, come across as having very little experience of singing in the language. They’ve plainly been coached, and I have heard worse: but prepare for a plethora of dropped aitches, ‘brasslets’ for ‘bracelets’, ‘brek’ for ‘break’, something not quite decipherable for ‘in-laws’ – that kind of thing happens on a regular basis. You may be able to cope with it or you may not; but you will certainly notice a world of difference when Hertzberg comes on the scene as Lucy. She doesn’t make as much of the words, or of her character’s chimerical moods, as she might, or indeed as she probably will in a few years’ time. But undeniably she sounds authentic, in a way that none of the others do. The singers are well recorded, and well supported by a 22-strong ‘pit band’ under Flavio Emilio Scogna. His direction is idiomatic, stylish, understanding, but at times a wee bit sluggish. There are no libretti; but texts of both operas are readily accessible online.

The online libretto for The Medium, by the way, comes courtesy of Cedille Records of Chicago, the booklet for whose 1997 issue of the opera has been posted in pdf form. The CD also seems still to be available (CDR 90000 034), and it is in almost every way preferable to the new issue by Kabaivanska’s pupils. Based on a Chicago Opera Theater production, it’s a lively and characterful enterprise: some of the singers (notably the Monica) are less than ideal, but none is bad and all are American; Joyce Castle chews the scenery admirably as Baba; and Lawrence Rapchak’s conducting has a fizz that sometimes eludes Scogna. With regard to The Telephone, there is another Italian production, recorded in Bergamo in 2000, which comes with some chamber and piano music by Menotti (Concerto CD2087). I’ve not heard that, but I have experienced the quite brilliant performance on DVD by Carole Farley, with Russell Smythe and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under José Serebrier (VAI DVDVAI4374). It comes with Poulenc’s very different, and much greater ‘telephone opera’, La Voix humaine, and represents a comedic tour de force on Farley’s part. It also reminds you that Menotti’s stage works really do benefit from a visual dimension. I suppose that’s particularly true of The Medium, which has a significant character who can neither speak nor sing; but I suspect the observation is also more generally applicable. Maybe indeed it’s one of the reasons why Menotti’s operas have been relatively neglected on CD.

So, then, for all its qualities, the current issue is likely to be your first choice only if (a) you definitely want the two operas together and (b) you don’t feel you can face the 1940s sound of the original-cast Broadway recording. That said, it’s been very good to hear some Menotti again. Maybe he’s due for a reassessment.

Nigel Harris

Previous review: Marc Rochester

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