Menotti Directs His 'Amelia' And 'the Medium'

Posted: November 07, 1987

Gian Carlo Menotti's operas are part of the fabric of 20th-century life, yet the composer has often complained that they thrive mostly because he continues to stage them. Thursday night at the Academy of Music, he reminded us of both facts: His works are living contemporary theatrical landmarks, and his staging, which combines intelligence with cleverness, is part of their very being.

Menotti's appearance was the focus of a celebration by the Curtis Institute of Music. He entered the school 60 years ago, wrote his first opera, Amelia Goes to the Ball, 50 years ago, and at 76 remains a figure to celebrate, whatever the anniversary. On Thursday, Curtis produced that first opera and Menotti's 1946 piece, The Medium, as a double bill, directed by the composer with the help of the cadre that has made his operas bloom at the Washington Opera and his own Spoleto festivals: conductor Herbert Gietzen, designer Zack Brown and personal assistant Roman Tarleckyj.

These productions got at the heart of Menotti's theater. He has never needed stars, but has created roles that give keen young singers star quality. He has consistently created opera that sweeps an audience irresistibly into his world. That encompassing world, whether comic, tragic or melodramatic, poses questions that resist glib answers - questions whose sophistication is sometimes overlooked because of the bright sheen of the musical envelope that contains them.

The juxtaposition of Menotti's first opera and a later one illustrated his own operatic growth. Amelia is the work of a young composer, prodigal in his use of melody and orchestral resources. The Medium is stark, the orchestra spare and given to silences, yet it includes the unstinting use of operatic conventions - ensemble and even the big dramatic aria.

Amelia, as performed Thursday, is a young daughter of Die Fledermaus - weightless, dry and frolicsome, a neo-Viennese operetta. It satirizes everything and nothing, creates its illusion and ends by affirming the ultimate value of going to the ball.

The music is bright and witty. It chases the chambermaids around Amelia's boudoir, guffaws at her lover's protests, surrounds her confusion with harmonic stumbles and even has a minute to mock modern music with orchestral dissonance. It was the complete expression of the young Menotti's exuberance, his budding theatrical awareness and his respect for the resources of traditional musical practice.

His cast made it all work. Maria Fortuna was the ripe Amelia, a gifted actress and apt singer. Her voice seemed to start well back in her throat, and much of the text may be back there yet, but no matter. The portrayal was vivid - bursting, really - and she swept everything toward her triumphant departure for the ball. Timothy Sarris and Perry Brisbon - husband and lover - helped the piece fly; and the decor, inspired by the Vienna Secession art movement, magnified its playfulness.

For The Medium, Menotti demanded textural purity. The shabby room, the tawdry clothes and the atmosphere of fraud are essential to the impact of this melodrama. Menotti's son, Chip, recreated his portrayal of Toby, the mute; Laura Mashburn, a young soprano from Georgia, created a gripping portrayal of Madame Flora, and Olive Lynch matched them in her singing of the daughter's role.

The entire work played with an intensity that made the music seem a part of speech, the action seem instrumental. The piece removes itself from discussions of its modernity or its nostalgic basis; its music and drama are as inseparable as body and skin.

The opera includes set pieces, with Flora's distraught scene and aria

recalling the mad scenes from 19th-century opera. How powerfully Mashburn sang the role, and how poignantly she managed that last question asked as the curtain falls.

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