The prolific Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) was coolly regarded by the classical world, especially in his final years. Despite the perennial success of his sweetly sentimental children’s TV opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951), his approachable, mostly tonal and undeniably old-fashioned music is hardly performed in concert halls. Of his two dozen operas, only The Telephone and The Consul crop up with any regularity.
This is why a chance to see The Medium, a success on Broadway in the 1940s, with intermittent staging since, proved irresistible, even if the work itself did not quite – a deft and intrepid production by Operaview notwithstanding. It was staged as part of the annual Grimeborn festival at the Arcola theatre in east London. This summer event, like the comparable Tête à Tête festival at King’s Cross, offers a dynamic showcase for new artists and companies, and an edgy alternative to mainstream operatic grandeur. The work of each is vital and wide-ranging, with an influence on the burgeoning opera scene far beyond its fringe identity.
In the Arcola’s compact but acoustically dead Studio 2, where the stage is the bare floor with seating on three sides, director Natalie Katsou and designer Yiannis Katsaris emphasised the suffocating atmosphere of Menotti’s work. Creative team and cast alike rose to the challenge of the deceptively tricky music and of the cramped space. Manoeuvring effortlessly round two cages, like large upended hamster wheels, the five singers and one actor showed impressive drill and evidence of scrupulous rehearsal. A supernumerary aerialist (Kahless Giles), who swung and perched with agile discretion throughout, added mysterious intensity.
The plot, triggered by an event in Menotti’s own life, turns on the meaning of belief. Madame Flora (Gráinne Gillis), a fake medium, has her own unexplained encounter with the supernatural – with terrible consequences. Probing questions are raised about the nature of a spiritual life. Perhaps this is why, admirably, two London churches – St Mary’s, Primrose Hill and the Methodist church, Stoke Newington – agreed to sponsor the opera. Is this a first?
Julia Sitkovetsky was outstanding as the repressed, loving daughter, with Gillis – whose voice has rich, dramatic potential – powerful in the title role. The music director, Maite Aguirre, who is also chorus director at Grange Park Opera, whipped quasi-orchestral colour out of a ropy upright piano. With Madame X, Women Box, Eight Songs for a Mad King and Poppea, all from different companies, yet to come, Grimeborn continues adventurously until 7 September.
Photograph: Yiannis Katsaris