Tidewater Opera Initiative presents Two by Menotti:
The Medium and The Old Maid and the Thief
Zeider’s American Dream Theater, August 12, 2016
Review by John Campbell

The Italians say “toi, toi, toi,” wishing performers good luck before they go onstage. This evening of two operas by Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) was also good luck for the audience! Menotti, who was born in a country town near Lake Lugano, Italy, began his studies at age 13 at Milan Conservatory. At 17 he came to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (1928-33) where he met Samuel Barber. They spent summers in Europe seeing operas and in 1935 Menotti wrote one of his own, the opera buffa Amelia Goes to the Ball. It was such a hit that the Met agreed to present it the following season (1937). This led to an NBC commission for a radio opera, the “grotesque comedy” The Old Maid and the Thief (1939) with libretto by the composer. In 1951 his NBC-TV opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors was broadcast and has become a Christmas classic.

The cast of four: Arna Macher as Miss Todd, the aging spinster whose house is the setting for most of the scenes; Kristian Bucy as her best friend, Miss Pinkerton; Miss Todd’s maid, Laetitia, sung by Anna Feucht; and Bob, a wanderer, sung by GSA alum Bradley Fielding, a rising sophomore at Northwestern University and a four-year veteran of TOI performances.

The Misses Todd and Pinkerton are having their usual afternoon tea when the maid Laetitia sets aside her romantic novel to answer the door to find Bob the wanderer. From the beginning there is a simmering desire in the women just below the surface of their plump, easy lives. Laetitia easily manipulates her boss to let Bob stay, hinting that Bob is the answer to the older woman’s unexpressed prayer for a lover. They concoct a story that Bob is her “cousin Steve” and has to stay inside because he is ill. The town gossip, Miss Pinkerton, brings news of an escaped thief in town and is bustled out of the house. The women steal money from the church and leave it lying about to make Bob think that she is wealthy. Bob is restless, singing When the Air Sings of Summer and requests liquor. Miss Todd, an active prohibitionist, and Laetitia, raid the local liquor store at night, rationalizing the crime as “sinning against a sin.”

Bob gets drunk and loud, just as Ms. Pinkerton comes to report that a famous detective has been hired to find the thief. She is bustled out once more and the two women separately beg Bob to run away before the police come. He points out that he has done nothing wrong and isn't interested in saving Miss Todd from prison—he doesn’t love her. In despair over Bob’s lack of interest in her also, Laetitia sings What a curse for a woman is a timid man. When Miss Todd goes for the police, Laetitia convinces Bob that they should run away together. Together they steal the best of Miss Todd’s belongings and leave. Bob concludes: “The devil couldn’t do what a woman can, to make a thief of an honest man!"

The two-act The Medium (1946) is a tragic thriller with libretto and music by Menotti. Madame Flora or Baba (Adrienne Kerr), and her daughter Monica (Kathryn Kelly) and the mute Gypsy-boy Toby (Bradley Fielding) live together. Eerie chords open a scene of Toby and Monica playing make believe. When Baba returns she rages because they have not prepared for the evening's séance. Three guests arrive, hoping to hear from their dead children: Mr. Gobineau (Marshall Severin), his wife (Bridget Cooper) and Mrs. Nolan (Nerissa V. Thompson). Using a series of parlor tricks, Monica appears to the guests as both of the departed children.

Suddenly Baba ends the séance, sending the guests away and claiming she felt ghostly hands about her throat. Black make-up on her eyelids underscores the formidable energy she creates as Madame Flora descends into fear and madness, alternating between hysterical laughter and prayers for forgiveness. Monica sings the lovely The Black Swan as she holds Baba against her breast, petting her. Baba only hears ghostly voices imitating Monica’s “mother, mother, are you there” from the séance.

A few days later Toby, alone with Monica, is playing with a string puppet. They bond as she sings Monica’s Waltz. He holds out his hands as if to hold her but never does. They dance. Baba’s arrival breaks the spell and Monica retreats to her room. A drunken Baba demands Toby admit to touching her neck at the séance. He does not and in a rage, she whips him. Monica comes to stop her. At that moment her clients from the séance appear, pleading for another visit with their departed. She admits her fraud but they remain true-believers even as she sends them away. She puts Toby out but he returns and calls to Monica. Baba awakes and in her delirium she shoots at the moving curtain Toby has hidden behind and announces “I have killed the ghost.” The final scene has Baba holding the gun barrel in her mouth.

The strong performances by both casts, music direction by Aurelien Eulert at the piano and staging by Alan Fischer gave the audience an engaging evening of live music and theater. Lighting design was by Josie Buckon and Eden Guill and Caroline Landrum was assistant director. Once again Tidewater Opera Initiative highlighted and celebrated the vast amount of musical talent in our region.

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