What exactly are they thinking at Opera in the Heights? In this two-opera set, Gian Carlo Menotti's little bauble of an operetta, The Telephone (1947), has been given an insane Halloween gloss so that characters Lucy and Ben appear as Bride of Frankenstein and Frankenstein monster. What the hell?! It's mind-numbingly stupid – and insulting to the composer. But The Medium (1946) is deliciously taut and fragrant, a wonderful homage to the composer. What's going on?
That we ultimately forgive director Lynda McKnight's myopic opening production is testament to the skill of Menotti (music and libretto), the fine playing of the chamber orchestra under maestro Eiki Isomura, and the exemplary sweet cast (soprano Julia Engels and tenor Thomas Richards). Fortunately, the comic opera lasts less than 20 minutes, so the shock of having to endure Lucy's Elsa Lanchester lightning-streaked wig or Ben's green skin and those bolts protruding from his neck is fleeting. But what is this? I know it opened on Halloween weekend, but, really, who thought this Munsters-esque look was a good idea?
Written as a curtain-raiser for Menotti's dank dramatic The Medium, The Telephone is a bright little work that's all glimmer and sass. About to leave on a business trip, boyfriend Ben is unable to propose to Lucy because she's constantly on the phone. She's tethered to her “umbilical cord,” as Ben calls it, when he's tangled up in its Laocoön cord. In mini arias, she gossips, gets a wrong number, calls the operator for the precise time, and apologizes to another best friend for gossiping with the first friend, while Ben frets in silence, as time ticks away. Realizing he can't win in person, he phones her from the train station and finally gets her attention. Yes, she will marry him. But will you remember, she teases. Sure, he says, Your face, eyes, lips? No, silly, my phone number.
Menotti had no idea how prescient he was.
Engels sparkles as preoccupied Lucy; Richards fumes as second-in-line Ben; Menotti dazzles. A tasty musical hors d'oeurve, the opera goes by in a flash. Nobody sets conversational speech so nimbly as Menotti. Fresh and piquant, the work's over before you know it.
These were his glory years, the '40s and '50s, when Menotti was considered the young savior of opera. His melodies flowed, his dramatic instincts secure, and almost everyone who had a new television set watched his magnificent NBC Christmas special Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951). This production turned on an entire generation to the glories of opera. (Are you listening, HGO?)
Menotti was the voice of the new verismo, or, perhaps, the old verismo in new guise – passionately singable, lyric, gritty, melodramatic, Italianate. A worthy successor to Puccini and Mascagni, Menotti was supposed to revive moribund, old-fogy opera. But for all his prodigious gifts, he was in the wrong century, and his throwback rococo style didn't suit the fashion of the time. After his early hits, he was branded hopelessly old-fashioned. Although he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Music – The Consul (1950) and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954) – none of his future work would be so wildly applauded. His last opera was The Singing Child (1993). He was also indirectly responsible for a third Pulitzer: he wrote the libretto for his partner Samuel Barber's opera Vanessa (1958), which won Barber the prestigious award.
The Medium is sleek psychological thriller. Madame Flora (mezzo Claudia Chapa, in full diva mode), a sham seer, hoodwinks her emotionally fragile patrons with fake séances and stage tricks. Daughter Monica (soprano Julie Thornton) supplies the phantom voices while mute Toby (Alex Scheuremann), in love with Monica, supplies the special effects. Flora is haunted by memories not fully enumerated by Menotti, but her unspecified terrors have something to do with surviving the horrors of WW II. Motivation might be nebulous, but Menotti overlays the scant background info with eerie skittering woodwinds, prickly percussion, and Monica's minor key folk tune “The Black Swan,” to instill an atmosphere of creepy European angst. The drama is high-pitched and over-the-top. Pure verismo, the work is out there, as we say.
Who has touched her with an icy hand, Madame Flora demands to know, cutting short the séance. She blames Toby and forces him out of the house. When he sneaks back to get Monica, a drunken Flora, obsessed and hallucinating, shoots him. “I have killed the ghost,” she shouts in triumph.
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Jodi Bobrovsky's set design is appropriately moldy and seedy, a New Orleans house decayed and redolent of mildew. When Flora's demons descend, the lights go red and spooky.
Chapa, memorable from OH's past seasons as a bouncy Mistress Quickly in Falstaff and a gleeful witch in Hansel and Gretel, possesses a purring inky mezzo that envelops Menotti's dramatic lines with probing depth and nuance. When she goes bonkers, stand back. As repressed Monica, Thornton turns a bit shrill in the upper register when singing full out, and her voice can get lost even through Menotti's chamber orchestration, but her rendition of “Black Swan” glows with tenderness, like innocence remembered. Although a non-singing role, Scheuremann's Toby is constantly wary and feral, on guard against Flora's unwarranted outbursts and quickly hiding behind the furniture for protection. He's lost his innocence years ago. The clients, who vehemently protest Madame Flora's confession that she's a fraud because they want so desperately to believe their children are in contact with them, are suitably limed by soprano Gwen Alfred, tenor Richards, and mezzo Monica Isomura.
Any Menotti is rare in today's opera rep. A return to his particular brand of full-out theatricality is long overdue, certainly welcome, and a surprising re-discovery.
The Telephone and The Medium continues on November 7 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $35-$67.