MediumGian Carlo Menotti - The Medium

NI Opera / Second Movement | Oliver Mears, Nicholas Chalmers, Doreen Curran, Yvette Bonner, Will Stokes, David Butt Philip, Jane Harrington, Alison Dunne | Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey - February 15th, 2011

One of a number of smaller scale events being organised by the newly formed Northern Ireland Opera prior to their official inaugural multi-staged version of Tosca, where each act will be performed in different locations in Derry-Londonderry, the staging of Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1946 chamber opera at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey last night was a promising taster, one hopes, of a sign of the company’s adventurousness in its attempts to raise awareness of opera through performances of lesser-known works and through events that are less traditional in their presentation.

Menotti’s The Medium, a short 65 minute two act piece which has been adapted for film and television in the past, can hardly be called adventurous, but its production by Second Movement under the direction of NI Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears, proved to be musically refreshing and the opera itself opened up some interesting ideas. Based on a real-life experience of the composer’s at a séance while holidaying in Austria with Samuel Barber, it’s tempting to compare the piece to Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, if only because of the sparseness of the orchestration and the ability of the instruments to evoke a spooky atmosphere, but while it remains similarly ambiguous on the question of what is real and what is imagined or projected by the protagonists, The Medium, with its more variably toned score, seems to touch on wider aspects of self-delusion and even mass-hysteria than Henry James’ tale of Victorian sexual repression.

Prior to this production, the only piece I would have been familiar with from this opera, or indeed from Menotti for that matter, would have been Monica’s Waltz, recorded by Renée Fleming on her album I Want Magic, and delicately performed here by Yvette Bonner, with a tone more appropriate to the age of her young character than Fleming’s dramatic rendition. It’s this piece, sung at the start of Act 2 by Monica the daughter of the false medium, Baba – or Madame Flora as she is known – to Toby, a young orphan with no voice found on the streets of Budapest and taken into the household as a servant, that opens up the opera to wider aspects than its central dramatic subject of a fake séance that goes terribly wrong. In it, the young girl projects onto the silent Toby all her romantic desires for going out dancing and to the theatre, giving him the voice that she longs to hear.

MediumMonica’s desires are no different from those of the customers who come to Madame Flora looking to get into contact with their dead children – Jane Harrington’s recounting of the drowning of the Gobineau’s two-year old child was delivered most effectively and chillingly, fully expressing those emotions that bring them to the medium – as an attempt to fill the void that has been left in their lives. Even Baba actions, as can be judged by her rescuing of an orphan – even the fact that she mistreats him – her alcoholism and her attempts to feel important as Madame Baba, speak of a deeper void that needs to be filled, and Doreen Curran’s well-sung performance of the role is dramatically commanding and emotionally sensitive in this respect as her drink-addled confusion and fears of tapping into something more sinister pushes her into near-hysteria.

With each of the characters suffering from self-induced delusions of one kind or another, it might not be pushing it too far, considering the immediate post-war writing of The Medium, to consider this kind of mass hysteria and the dangerous places it can lead to as a reaction to the Second World War. There is nothing specific in the opera that leads one to consider it in those terms, but there is undoubtedly a correlation between the séance and a nation looking to someone like Hitler to give them a voice and sense of meaning, and – particularly in Toby, the opera’s silent character, one who significantly plays with glove puppets – there’s enough ambiguity to make wider associations. It’s in this necessary space that an audience is likewise expected to project their own desires, and it’s there that the opera is ultimately successful.