We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, November 1, 2019


Philip Stoddard, Cristina Marie Castro, Chantelle Grant, Jackson McKinnon, Kathleen Shelton, JoAnna Geffert,
and Joshua Miller

In 1946, commissioned by Columbia University, Gian Carlo Menotti composed the music and wrote the lyrics for a work entitled The Medium. Within a period of five years, it achieved a Broadway run, a television production, and a film.

It has been called an opera but, in our opinion, it comes across as a play with music. In its one hour duration, it has a great deal to say about deceit, gullibility, and abuse. As far as the "music" it is non-melodic, although there are three fine arias, two of which are for Monica and one for Madame Flora, her mother.

Although we have seen it before, the production we saw by City Lyric Opera hit all the right notes dramatically, thanks to Stage Director Mikhaela Mahoney who apparently included contributions from her excellent cast. Subtexts were revealed which were completely relevant to today's world.

The cast was uniformly excellent with Philip Stoddard portraying the mute Toby as a gangly adolescent whose mental faculties have not kept pace with his physical maturation. He conveyed so much with his face and gesture that speech would have been redundant.

As Monica, soprano Cristina Marie Castro invested her role with pathos and ambivalence. Clearly her abusive mother (Madame Flora) has brought her up with poor morality. She is obliged to serve her mother by fraudulently convincing Madame Flora's clients that she is the spirit of their departed children.

The one joy of her life is the presence of Toby whose backstory is only hinted at; he was rescued from the streets of Budapest and is mistreated by Madame Flora. The two youngsters are playmates but Monica cannot resist physicalizing their relationship in a way that confuses poor Toby.

Ms. Castro's shining soprano was lovely in "Monica's Waltz" and in the soothing song she sings to calm her anxious mother--"The Black Swan".

Chantelle Grant has an interesting texture to her mezzo-soprano instrument and was completely convincing as the duplicitous medium. Tampering with the world of spirits has its risks and Madame Flora becomes frightened when she hallucinates (or did she?) hands around her throat. She blames Toby for this, just as she blames him for everything.

She begins to decompensate and when her clients arrive for the next seance, she returns their money and tells them everything was a hoax. But they won't believe her and insist that their children actually contacted them! We see the same human flaw today in people who won't face the truth and clutch desperately to wishful thinking.

Ms. Grant takes to the bottle and sings a heart rending aria "Afraid? Am I afraid?" The three arias are in English and therefore less indicative of the quality of the voices than arias sung in Italian; but to our ears all the singers sounded just fine.

Aside from the three arias, all the other dialogue could be considered sprechstimme. No one would mind if the lines were spoken. As a matter of fact, since Music Director Jackson McKinnon played the piano with such an excess of volume, we would have preferred that, since many of the lines were drowned out. In all fairness, we were sitting very close to the piano, so if you attend one of the next four performances (and we hope you will) we advise sitting as far from the piano as possible.

The smaller roles were finely enacted. Kathleen Shelton portrayed Mrs. Nolan who wanted to communicate with her sixteen year old daughter. As the Gobineau's, JoAnna Geffert and Joshua Miller were convincing as a couple who had lost their two year old son and were satisfied just to hear him giggle. Of course it was Monica in both cases.

There were several small touches, which we will not reveal here, that made the production far more effective than it usually is. It was genuinely spooky and upsetting, which speaks well for the director and the performers. The casting was spot on. The roles of Monica and Madame Flora are double cast so you, dear reader, may see a performance that is slightly different from the one we saw. Still, we recognized the names of the second cast and can assure you that you won't be disappointed.

No one was credited for the set; it was simple but effective--a table, some chairs, a period lamp or two, and a neon sign advertising "Psychic". Dallas Estes' eerie lighting added to the experience. The uncredited costumes seemed period appropriate and fortunately did not call attention to themselves.

If you are unfamiliar with City Lyric Opera, let us fill you in. In a couple short years, Co-Founders and Co-Artistic Directors Kathleen Spencer and Megan Gillis have created a valuable niche for themselves with an artist-centric company that relies on an original vision to bring people into the world of opera with very modest ticket prices. Aside from their Mainstage Productions, they present Salons and WorkshOperas. These events must be experienced to be appreciated.

© meche kroop

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