Rare outing for Menotti’s opera in a small scale production
The Grimeborn Festival is now underway at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, showcasing a wide variety of smaller scale operatic productions. For our first visit to the festival this year we saw Operaview (14 August 2014) in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, presented in the smaller studio theatre in a production directed by Natalie Katsou, designed by Maria Kalamara and Salome Makaronidou with lighting by Yiannis Katsaris. Maite Aguirre accompanied at the piano. The cast included Grainne Gillis as Madame Flora,Julia Sitkovetsky as Monica, Phoebe-Celeste Humphreys as Mrs Gobineau,Lucy Anderson as Mrs Nolan, Jonathan Alley as Mr Gobineau, with Patrick Holt as Toby and Kahless Giles as Spirit/Bird.
Menotti’s short opera (it last around an hour) was premiered in the 1940’s; it was his fourth opera and sets his own libretto. The musical style is relatively conservative, but within this the subject matter does allow Menotti to push the boundaries sometimes. The story concerns a fake medium, Madam Flora (Grainne Gillis) who goes to pieces when she experiences something which might actually have been supernatural. Her clients, Mr and Mrs Nolan (Jonathan Alley and Lucy Anderson) and Mrs Gobineau (Phoebe-Celeste Humphreys) remain convinced that though what Madam Flora was doing was fake, what they experienced was real and this reflected some of Menotti’s own experiences (described in the programme).
But this isn’t a thought piece, and onto this already rather fraught plot, Menotti crafts further layers. Madam Flora’s daughter, Monica ( Julia Sitkovestsky), helps her in the seances and provides the voices but is kept under control and locked in her room. Monica is fond of Toby (Patrick Holt), a mute servant whom Madam Flora employs but does not trust. Madam Flora suspects Toby of being responsible for the event during the seance which appeared supernatural and tries to get him to tell her. He refuses and is thrown out, when he creeps back to see Monica, Flora shoots him thinking he is the ghost. We never do find out what is real and what is imaginary (that is Menotti’s idea) but the whole Monica/Toby/Flora plot has a rather strong element of grand guignol about it.
Natalie Katsou’s production took captivity as its theme, having Monica and Toby’s rooms to be cages and giving us an extra character – a bird. This was played by aerialist Kahless Giles (in a bird mask) but you were never sure whether he was bird or spirit and played some unexplained part in the proceedings. Another layer of intrigue.
Studio 2 at the Arcola Theatre is a rather thankless space. The audience surrounds the action on three sides, the ceiling is rather too low and sight lines are not ideal. For an opera, the closeness makes for a lively resonance and it did not help that the piano was not in the best of health (though Maite Aguirre did wonderfully). Playing The Medium with only piano accompaniment did rather deprive us of Menotti’s orchestra which plays a great part in the action and was a great loss. The compensation was the intensity of the action.
Grainne Gillis was a very dramatic and wonderfully raddled Madam Flora who visible went to pieces. I think her large scale voice would have benefited from a bigger space, but she was vividly and vibrant, though perhaps missed the element of poignancy. Julia Sitkovetsky made a lovely Monica, she got the opera’s most lyrical numbers and gave us a real sense of Monica’s longing to be free of her mother. Sitkovetsky had a touching and believable relationship with Patrick Holt’s Toby. Holt played the role bare chested, I’m not sure why but it certainly meant we were able to see Toby’s considerable charms. Holt was also a lively performer even though required to be mute.
The three clients were all characterfully done but Humphreys, Anderson and Alley. I suspect all were playing people far older than themselves, but this did not matter. In the second act where they tell Flora that they believe in her despite her being a fraud, all four were believably touching and really brought home the true message of the opera.
Kahless Giles performed admirably, and mesmerisingly, only coming down to earth at the very end of the opera. Quite what his role was meant to add, I am not sure. I have a feeling that Katsou was rather too fascinating with the super-natural elements of the plot whereas the strength of Menotti’s work lies in the way it examines what happens when people believe something so strongly.
Menotti’s operas still do not get regular outings and this was the first time that I had seen The Medium live. I would love to see this production in a larger space with a larger instrumental ensemble. But Operaview gave us an hour of gripping musical theatre.
Gian Carlo Menotti The Medium; Operaview, director Natalie Katsou, Musical Director Maite Aguirre; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 14 2014
Star rating: 3.5
Photograph: Yiannis Katsaris