Monday 30 January 2017

Dark doings: Menotti's The Medium from Magnetic Opera

Menotti - The Medium - Magnetic Opera
Gian Carlo Menotti The Medium; Magnetic Opera,Thomas Henderson, Calum Fraser; Barons Court Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 28 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Menotti's grand-guignol opera in a performance from a strong young cast in a basement theatre

Gian Carlo Menotti's opera seem to be still out of fashion, though Samuel Barber's Vanessa (to which Menotti wrote the libretto) has made something of a comeback. But Menotti's smaller scale operas remain more popular with fringe companies. In 2014 we heard The Medium given by Operaview at the Grimeborn Festival (see my review), and on Saturday 28 January 2017 we encountered the opera again, performed by Magnetic Opera at the Barons Court Theatre, directed by Thomas Henderson, with Calum Fraser as musical director and designed by Clara Lopez Merino. Michaela Parry was Madame Flora, and Catriona Hewitson was Monica, with Andy Peppiette as Toby, Jana Holesworth as Mrs Gobineau, Mark Nathan as Mr Gobineau, Rachel Falaise as Mrs Nolan with Julianne Gallant (piano) and Emma Donald (violin).

Magnetic Opera is a young opera company founded by Calum Fraser, whose previous productions at Barons Court Theatre have included Puccini's La Boheme. The theatre space is unusual, part of pub it is in the basement providing a dark, enclosed space with audience on three sides of the performing area. A very apt space in which to perform Menotti's The Medium.

Premiered in 1946, with a libretto by the composer, the work is pure Hollywood noir melodrama and in fact the composer helped turn the opera into just such a film 1951 (the DVD is available from Amazon). Lasting only an hour it is a concentrated piece, Madame Flora (Michaela Parry) acts as a fake medium extorting money out of fragile clients, Mr & Mrs Gobineau (Jana Holesworth and Mark Nathan), and Mrs Nolan (Rachel Falaise), aided by her daughter Monica (Catriona Hewitson) and Toby (Andy Peppiette), a mute who has taken in by Madame Flora. Madame Flora becomes obsessed with a possible genuine manifestation with tragic results. Menotti is very interested in this interaction between the real and the fake, and when Madame Flora tries to tell her clients she is a fake they all deny it, convinced their experiences are real.

Menotti's music is lyrical, Puccini-esque even, and certainly out of step with the prevailing musical styles of the 1940s. But in a strong performance we can appreciated the work's power.

Magnetic Opera fielded a young cast all with terrific voices, which filled the small (and thankfully resonant) performance space. That the audience sat so close, with performers rushing past us, only intensified the piece. Having the accompaniment for piano (Juliane Gallant) and violin (Emma Donald) was an excellent idea. Whilst we missed Menotti's orchestra, Emma Donald's violin added an extra dimension to the accompaniment.

The powerful performance did not quite manage to paper over the holes in the plot. Perhaps Michaela Parry's Madame Flora was a bit too nice, particularly in the opening scenes, though she brought a nice poignancy to the underlying desperation in the character. Catriona Hewitson's Monica seemed a little too self possessed for her to be so cowed by her mother (the plot relies on Madame Flora locking Monica into her room), but then Hewitson and Parry were probably the same age.

Musically there was little to fault the entire cast. Michaela Parry was always musical, and her performance grew in power as the character became more disturbed and she really held our attention in the griping final scene. Hewitson sang Monicas arias with great beauty and poignancy, and she and Peppiette really developed the strong relationship between Monica and Toby, really tugging the heart strings. As the non-speaking Toby, Peppiette was truly magnetic, really dominating the stage.

The three gullible, vulnerable chants were movingly played by Jana Holesworth, Mark Nathan and Rachel Falaise. In their first scene we learn their stories, the children they have lost and with whom the are seeking to reconnect. In their second scene Menotti reveals the characters' desperation and fragility, as the three refuse to believe that Madame Flora is a fraud, with Jana Holesworth, Mark Nathan and Rachel Falaise all giving profoundly moving performances. A tiny scene, but the cast made it  telling one.

A rather neat added touch to the programme (I am not sure it is in the score) was to have an off stage voice echoing Monica's performances as the Gobineau's and Mrs Nolan's children when Madame Flora became profoundly disturbed by her worries over the manifestation.

There were only three performances, but I do hope the company brings it back.

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