Douglas Messerli [USA]
Strong but Fragile Survivors
[on Gian-Carlo Menotti]
Gian-Carlo Menotti The Medium / Thomas Schippers conducting the Symphony Orchestra of
Rome Radio Italiana, 1950
Gian-Carlo Menotti The Medium / Raffi Armenian conducting The Straford Ensemble /
1977 television production based on the Comus Music Theatre of Canada Production
Gian-Carlo Menotti The Consul / Werner Torkanowsky conducting / Produced for television by
Jean Darlymple, 1960
Gian-Carlo Menotti Amahl and the Night Visitors / David Syrus conducting the chorus and
orchestra of The Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 1998
With the news of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s death on February 1, 2007, the US lost one of its major composers of opera. Even though he had remained throughout his life an Italian citizen, living for the past several years in Monaco and Scotland, Menotti composed and performed his major operas in the US, where he lived for most of his life, companion for years with the composer Samuel Barber and, later, with conductor Thomas Schippers.
I remember Menotti—as many of my generation might—for his Amahl and the Night Visitors, his so-called Christmas opera, performed annually from 1951 for a number of years on NBC television. The simple story of a poor young shepard boy’s and his mother’s encounter with the Three Kings, the biblical wise men on their way to witness birth of the Holy Child, was perhaps my first encounter with opera, a kind of treasured annual event in my house—although my other family members, I am sure, would not have suffered it if I’d not pleaded each year for that special 45 minutes of viewing.
I’d also seen—although I can’t remember where (perhaps on stage at Waukesha, Wisconsin High School?)—a performance of his short L’amour à trois, The Telephone, wherein a young woman, Lucy, is so infatuated with her phone that her lover, Ben cannot hold her attention long enough to propose marriage. His final solution is to telephone with his proposal.
If the two works I’ve described sound somewhat simplistic and—here comes that terrible word—“popular,” Menotti’s works were just that! Despite my family’s disinterest in Amahl, millions of households did watch it, presumably with great pleasure, annually—at a time when television executives were still testing out various cultural activities (drama, historical reenactments, orchestral music, and opera) on the relatively new medium.
Menotti’s other operas, moreover, The Medium (first performed in 1946), The Consul (premiering in 1950), and The Saint of Bleecker Street (which opened in 1954), were all performed on Broadway—the first with a run at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in 1947-1948 of 211 performances; the second running eight months and winning the Pulitzer Prize and Drama Critics’ Circle Award; and the third performed at the Broadway Theater (although with less success), also awarded the Drama Critics’ Circle Award, a second Pulitzer Prize and the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award. Menotti, in short, was popular. Through his highly dramatic plots and appealing, melodic music (the composer is often compared to Puccini), Menotti was able to bring together music, theater, and popular entertainment in way that is nearly inconceivable today! As music critic Martin Bernheimer described Menotti, he is “a modern composer who writes old-fashioned opera for the masses.”
One might, contrarily, describe Menotti—along with Leonard Bernstein and a few others—as an innovative composer in his attempts to blend popular theater with a so-called “high” art, a composer who would influence later figures such as Arnold Weinstein (whom I’ve written about in my 2003 volume of these cultural memoirs), Irene Maria Fornes, Stephen Sondheim, Mac Wellman (in works such as The Lesser Magoo) and even me—in my own operatic endeavor with composer Michael Kowalski, Still in Love!
By the end of his career, however—a career perhaps also shortened by his entrepreneurial activities of the Festival of Two Worlds occurring in both Spoleto, Italy and Charleston, South Carolina—Menotti’s melodically-based theater pieces were critically attacked. While his libretto for Samuel Barber’s Vanessa was praised, his own later works—as well as those of Barber—were often scathingly dismissed. Times had changed.
The critics, in some respects, may be justified for their reactions. There is no question that Menotti’s art is often retardataire; that the high drama of his pieces can appear almost comical to today’s more cynical audiences. Although, Menotti’s lyrical works are often as discordant as Bernstein’s, for example, he does not share that composer’s jazz idioms so brilliantly played out in On the Town and West Side Story. Yet, there are many moments in Menotti’s work that are far more musically challenging than Sondheim’s compositions and match Bernstein’s inventiveness: the overture to Bernstein’s 1955 “comic opera” Candide echoes many elements of Menotti’s earlier “Dance” of Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti shares many chordal moments with Menotti’s early works.
Menotti’s first major opera, The Medium (composed after a short one-act opera buffa, Amelia Goes to the Ball; another television work, The Old Maid and the Thief, and a failed opera seria, The Island God) seems to have been created in a hot-house environment. The very plot of the opera seems, at times, absurd. Madame Flora, a medium who, with help of her daughter Monica and a mute, gypsy servant boy, Toby, defrauds her customers—a couple, the Gobineaus, who are desperate to contact their baby boy, drowned in a decorative lawn fountain and Mrs. Nolan, come to hear news of her more recently deceased daughter—in order to eke out a meager living. Meanwhile, Monica and Toby, innocently toying with one another during Madame Flora’s absences and drinking binges, have fallen in love.
Madame Flora arrives home (she has threatened a neighbor lady to force her to repay a loan by sitting on her doorstep for hours) to find that nothing is prepared for the evening’s séance. She threatens both children, particularly Toby, whom she has found on the streets of Budapest and taken in as a kind of child-servant. The séance is successfully performed, with Monica’s lovely interpretation of the two children (“Mother, Mother, are you there?) and Toby’s technical support with the lights and table risings. Near the end of the event, however, Madame feels a touch against her throat, and becomes horrified, demanding the participants depart. She is certain that Toby has somehow been involved in the event, and insistently questions him, later even whipping him as he cowers in fear; yet he cannot (or, Madame Flora is convinced, will not) answer her questions.
Frightened by his silence and her own doubts, she determines to end the séances and return the money to the Gobineaus and Mrs. Nolan. A week later, however, they show up at the usual time, pleading that she continue the séances. Still affected by the previous week’s events, Madame rejects their pleas, explaining to her former customers just how she has tricked them. Incredibly, they refuse to believe her, insisting that the voices they heard were real, that she must have powers even she does not comprehend. Perceiving them as gullible idiots, she demands they leave her house, soon after requiring the same of Toby. Monica pleads that he is incapable of caring for himself, that he will die on the streets, but Madame Flora is determined to put her fears to rest. She locks Monica in her room and sends the boy off, settling down to drink and ruminate why she, a woman who has seen the worst of war-time events, should now be so frightened by death.
Toby sneaks back into the house to free Monica and take her away with him. Startled from her drunkenness, the medium reaches for her gun, shooting into the dark: Toby is dead.
Such grand, histrionic events need to be performed and directed in a similar manner if the opera is to succeed. I purchased two DVD’s of The Medium, the first a televised production from 1977 by The Stratford Ensemble with Maureen Forrester as Madame Flora and Shawna Farrell as Monica. This was a toned-down production, Forrester speaking many of her lines, some scenes pared away, the set starkly barren. I found the production enjoyable—but somewhat unconvincing. The second production—the earlier 1951 Menotti-directed film with Thomas Schippers conducting the Symphony Orchestra of Rome Radio Italiana and Marie Powers and Anna Maria Alberghetti in the major roles—was wonderfully over-the-top and cinematically conceived. As the reviewer for the Time Out Film Guide expressed it: “With monstrous characters and images only conceivable in a fevered or operatic mind [where else would one find Toby the deaf mute gypsy boy, his defiant eyelids sealed with hot candle wax], yet fully realizable nowhere else but the cinema.”
The 1960 Jean Dalrymple-produced television production of Menotti’s The Consul was presented in the drab, gritty black-and-white, of early TV. But Patricia Neway’s performance of Magda Sorel captured the slightly mad actions of a woman psychologically on the edge. Her husband, after all, is an underground hero, forced in the very first scene of the opera to leave his home—to cross the frontier—so that he will not betray his compatriots. Their baby son, watched over by the husband’s aged mother, is slowly starving to death.
This couple’s sorrowful duet of departure, transformed by the mother’s participation into a trio, is centered upon what are perhaps some of the looniest lyrics ever created:
Now, O lips, say goodbye
The word must be said but the heart must not heed.
The rose holds summer in her winter sleep.
The sea gathers moonlight where ships cannot plough.
And so will the heart retain endless hope….
…where time does not count, where words cannot reach.
Let no tears, no love laden tears dim the light that charts
Leave the tears to the starless one who wonders without
compass in the night.
Despite being nearly drowned in metaphors, the audience recognizes that this is the language of believers, of the heroes Sorel and his wife represent. John’s only practical advice to Magda is to visit the Consul.
We never discover what Consul she is to visit, in what country the police are terrorizing her, or to where she and her husband are trying to escape. And in that sense, there is a sort of Ionescoian-like abstraction to Menotti’s opera. It is a no-man’s land and an everyman’s land simultaneously—it might represent any European city both before World War II and any dictatorially-run country after the war. Whereas, John and Magda sing in a metaphorically based, dream-like language, the secretary of the Consul intones a bureaucratic gobbledygook. “May I speak to the Consul,” Magda pleads again and again, only to be answered “No one’s allowed to speak to the Consul, the Consul is busy.”
Asked what she wants, Magda tries to explain her husband’s role as hero and leader of the underground, of her own suffering, of her child’s and mother-in-law’s deaths, that her every move is watched. For the secretary, however, there is nothing to be done, forms must filled out. The hilarious, repetitively rhythmic interchange between the Consul Secretary and Magda is reminiscent of Ionesco or even Beckett:
SECRETARY: Your name is a number.
MAGDA: My name is Sorel.
SECRETARY: Sorel is a name and a name is a number.
MAGDA: The hidden hunger waits for the heart-sick panther
SECRETARY: I give you these papers. This is how to begin.
Your name is a number
Your story’s a case
Your need a request
Your hopes will be filed
Come back next week.
MAGDA: Will you explain [to the Consul]?
SECRETARY: What is there to explain?
MAGDA: Explain that John is a hero. That flowers bloom in the blood
that was shed.
The secretary can only repeat the requirements: fill out the papers, “Your name is a number,” etc. Like others visiting the Consul day after day, Magda makes no progress in communicating her plight. After so insistently demanding to see the Consul that the Secretary caves in, Magda is met at the door by his previous visitor: the chief of the police who threatens her life. She collapses, returning to the Consul the next day without any hope of response, returning home to kill herself at the very moment that her husband has himself returned to help his family escape.
In this opera the melodic references to Puccini (“Now, O lips, say goodbye) are darkly comedic in their relation to the Consul office interchanges, and, accordingly, the music seems much more dissonant and fragmented than the former opera. It is almost as if in The Consul Menotti has found the perfect foil for his melodramatic and sometimes overly sweet melodic moments. Without diminishing any of the true tragedy of his tale, Menotti also elicits a sense of the absurdity and meaningless of all acts.
Having seen Amahl and the Night Visitors two or three times over the years, I was satisfied to listen to a recording of that opera. The Royal Opera House at Convent Garden production with Lorna Haywood as the Mother and James Rainbird as the young crippled boy was a beautiful reminder of the joys of this truly family event. Here too, particularly in his presentation of the slightly ridiculous King Kasper, Menotti was able to combine the absurd and the sublime. How could any one with a shred of humor not be enchanted with his fascinating catalogue of the contents of his marvelous box in “This Is My Box,” or the repeatedly chanted eleisons of the wise men in “Thank You Good Friends” in response to the gifts brought them by the poor shepards. The beautiful antiphony of “Have You Seen a Child?—the wise men asking about the Christ child, Amahl’s mother responding with the news of her own son—marvelously personalizes the mythical and helps to explain her later attempt to steal the Kings’ gold. Only Menotti, moreover, could have conjured up the wonderfully absurd idea of presenting to the Christ child a gift of a crutch—reminding us all perhaps of how impossible it is to stand on two feet as a human being.
If Menotti was an unabashed romantic, so too was he a kind of early absurdist, a theatrical trickster who could combine the tragic occurrences of the 20 th century with a comic recognition of the spiritual emptiness with which those events had left its survivors. Madame Flora, Magda Sorel, even the abandoned Mother of the small crippled child, all inordinately strong figures, are brought down by nearly insignificant events and individuals—by a touch of the flesh, by an office worker demanding that human beings become a number, by three wandering kings mysteriously passing in the night who sweep up her son from bleak reality into a myth of eternal proportions.
American culture has indeed lost something with the death of a man who could speak so eloquently—in both music and language—of the fragility of life.
Copyright ©2007 by Douglas Messerli