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Gian Carlo MENOTTI (1911-2007)
The Medium [65:13]
The Telephone [24:58]
Elizabeth Hertzberg (Lucy), Marily Santoro (Monica), Julija Samsonova-Khayet (Madame Flora), Chiara Isotton (Mrs Gobineau), Lorenzo Grante (Mr Gobineau, Ben), Roxana Herrera Diaz (Mrs Nolan), Arianna Manganello (voice off-stage)
Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana/Flavio Emilio Scogna
rec. 2018, Teatro Communale Luciano Pavarotti, Modena, Italy
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95361 [2 CDs: 90:11]

To those of us of a certain vintage, the name of Gian Carlo Menotti is synonymous with the TV opera Amahl and the Night Visitors which, in those heady days before the horrors of The Polar Express and The Snowman, was an inevitable fixture in TV schedules at Christmas. Others will recognise the name of Menotti as Samuel Barber’s lover and long-term partner. But Menotti was the master of the short, concise opera in which the human side of its characters mattered far more than any plot line or drama. Who else could so successfully have produced an entire one-act opera set around a telephone conversation in which one side of the conversation is never heard? Or one where five people sitting around a table are somewhat eclipsed by an off-stage voice and mute servant boy? These two operas – The Telephone and The Medium – were a runaway success on Broadway as a double act during the late 1940s and, apparently, goaded a jealous Stravinsky into writing his own English-language opera for the American stage, The Rake’s Progress. What Stravinsky never achieved with his opera was the huge popular success of Menotti, whose operas, in the words of Groves Dictionary “Whether we decide to define the results as opera, music theatre or musical does not detract from the achievement of creating new audiences for one of the oldest of genres”. This recording recreates that once popular double act using a cast drawn largely from the Raina Kabaivanska Masterclass held in Modena, and I suspect, looking at the recording data, this was recorded live; but there is nothing to suggest that in the recording itself which is clean and adequately balanced, if not otherwise particularly noteworthy from a purely technical point of view.
The Medium is a powerful psychological study of the expectations of those attending a sťance, and the eventual breakdown of the Medium herself following a seemingly innocuous event at the sťance. The rich, fruity voice of Julija Samsonova-Khayet is absolutely right for the fraudulent Medium, Madame Flora. While on stage it is the mute servant, Toby, who has the most dramatic presence as co-conspirator to Madame Flora’s deception, as Flora’s daughter’s failed lover, and as the apparent ghost shot by Madame Flora in the final, tear-jerker of a scene, his inevitable absence from this sound only recording is well compensated for by the vocal presence of both Samsonova-Khayet and Marily Santoro as the innocent-voiced but not-so-innocent daughter, Monica. The three attendees at the sťance, sung by Chiara Isotton, Lorenzo Grante and Roxana Herrera Diaz, make a lovely job of the dangerously mundane, and at times platitudinous words they have to sing, and Arianne Manganello is suitably eerie as she sings as if from beyond the grave. But it is Samsonova-Khayet who clearly sweeps the floor here with her magnificent delivery of a matronly and bossy woman, prone to alcohol-fuelled outbursts of violence (magnificently captured in her shouts of “get out” when the attendees return for a promised second sťance), who can at once summon up spirits but who is obviously very badly scared by what she believes she has summoned up. Her descent into insanity is vividly conveyed. This is a magnificent performance from a singer about whom absolutely nothing is revealed in the slim booklet (which does not contain even a basic synopsis - let alone a full text - of either opera) and whose Italian-language only webpage is more visual than informative.

The success of pairing The Medium with The Telephone lies in the fact against the intense psychological drama of the one, the other offers light relief and moments of real comedy. Written in 1946 and 1947 consecutively, the musical language aims for a directness of expression and a dramatic potency quite alien to so much of what was going on in the USA at the time. Menotti never went for experimentation or modernism, the Second Viennese School offered no allure to him, and one gets the overriding impression that all he is interested in is setting of the latent drama of the human voice to its finest potential; as he once wrote, “There is a certain indolence towards the use of the voice today, a tendency to treat the voice instrumentally, as if composers feared that its texture is too expressive, too human”. Humanity is at the very core of The Telephone in which Ben’s proposal of marriage to Lucy is continually interrupted by Lucy’s persistently ringing telephone (been there, done that, got the tee-shirt!), and can eventually only be done by being itself made in a phone call.

Immediately we are in a different world from The Medium, with a jovial, decidedly comic orchestral introduction, complete with lots of jokey “wrong notes” from the bassoon. Flavio Emilio Scogna paces this perfectly, and the 22 players of his Italian Philharmonic Orchestra respond with pleasing levity, in particular a disarmingly attractive oboe solo played by Fabrizio Oriani. Once again the vocal casting is superb. Elizabeth Hertzberg is the model of insincerity and bland charm against Lorenzo Grante’s fervent Ben. Menotti’s understanding of how one-sided conversations over the telephone sound to eavesdroppers (in an age when the phone was a far less ubiquitous presence than it is today), along with Hertzberg’s gorgeous sense of timing (her choreographed laughter to the invisible and inaudible Margaret is an absolute gem) makes this all seem so utterly credible that we forget that this is a work which almost created a new genre – that of the static opera. Could any other composer have invested such questions as “How is the Pussy Cat, and how is the Dog” with such dramatic power, or turned the anger of a wrong number into such a moment of tantalising anticipation? The unaccompanied argument between Ben and Lucy, the former trying to delay the latter’s telephonic obsession, is finely crafted, and its resolution is nicely conveyed with the reappearance of the orchestra. Grante’s part-Italian, part-New York inflexions rather lack conviction, but his diction is never less than excellent, and for an opera in which the drama comes from the words rather than from either action or music, this makes this an ideal introduction to those who, by accident of birth, never lived through those times when Menotti’s operas were all the rage.

Marc Rochester

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