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Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, September 2011

Of the present two works The Medium was premiered in May 1946 but Menotti revised it immediately afterwards and then composed The Telephone as a curtain-raiser to fill the evening. At just under 80 minutes it is still a short evening. This double bill was played three times at the Heckscher Theater in New York City in February 1947 and then opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway on 1 May the same year. They were, in general, received with enthusiasm and ran for more than 200 performances, which isn’t much in Broadway musical terms but is quite sensational for music of this kind.

The Medium is a dark story. Madame Flora is a fake medium who uses her daughter Monica and her son Toby, who is mute, to carry through séances. One day she confesses to her visitors that it’s only humbug but they refuse to believe her. They want to believe that they can be in contact with their daughter. But Madame Flora has felt a hand touching her and is scared out of her wits, she starts drinking and collapses. I was lucky to see a performance of The Medium almost thirty years ago and was deeply moved by it. Coming back to it now, if only with the recorded sound and the synopsis at hand was still a strong experience.

The music is moderately modern but in a very approachable way. The vocal parts are often melodious but occasionally Menotti feels he has to prove that he is part of the modern school and then his harmonies become harsher. But he can’t hide that he is a romantic at heart. Just listen to The sun has fallen (tr 10) which ends act I. For long stretches the drama is propelled forward in a dramatic parlando, where Menotti doesn’t fight shy of quite ugly noises, but by and large this is accessible music and this is arguably his finest opera.

The Telephone is something quite different. It is a comic opera for only two characters, it lasts little more than 22 minutes and it literally bubbles with vitality and high spirits. Ben is trying to propose marriage to Lucy in her apartment but the telephone rings and she has long conversations. Ben is frustrated. He would most of all want to cut the telephone wires—this was long before cell-phones—and at last he leaves but makes a final attempt and calls her from a telephone booth. She says ‘yes’ and they sing a telephone duet. It is a whirlwind of an opera, a dream for a lyric coloratura soprano and Marilyn Cotlow excels in it, not least with her infectious laughter. She has an enchanting, operetta-like solo, Hello, this is Lucy, that is a show-stopper and Frank Rogier’s warm baritone is the perfect foil for her antics. The whole piece is both beautiful and charming—and great fun.

The playing and singing in both works is good and the sound is very good, considering its age. Two contrasting works that seem worlds apart but still go well together. Menotti may not be one of the most important of 20th century opera composers but he wasn’t a charlatan either. Those unfamiliar with his music and who have become curious to hear some of it should start with The Telephone. It is difficult not to like.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2011

Menotti’s opera, The Medium, ran for over two hundred performances on Broadway after its composition in 1947, and then dropped out of the frequent opera repertoire. The libretto is the story of a phony Medium (Baba) who prays on her customers gullibility with a series of shabby tricks to bring back loved ones from the dead. She is helped in this deception by Monica and a mute, Toby, but in one of her trances things become all too real and she feels a hand on her throat ready to kill her. This she blames on Toby and tells him to leave, Monica saying she will go with him, but Baba orders her to her room. When night comes Toby returns to fetch Monica, but is disturbed by Baba. He hides behind a curtain, Baba taking a gun asks who is there or she will fire. Toby, of course, cannot answer, Baba fires and kills him, kneeling by his body demanding to know if it was his hand. The work is an ‘accompanied recitative ‘ with few arias, the orchestra generating much of the tension, The American contralto, Marie Powers, sang a wide range of opera from Verdi to Wagner, but it was as the Medium that her name was linked. As this studio recording from October 1947 would show, she was well supported by the Monica of Evelyn Keller, a sweet toned soprano to picture a young girl. Without the visual presence of Toby any recording has a massive drawback, but nothing compared to The Telephone where the telephone keeps on interrupting the young man trying to propose marriage, though on disc we just hear two people singing. Again it is well cast with young-sounding voices in Marilyn Cotlow and Frank Rogier. It was intended for performance with The Medium, though I thought Menotti regarded it as a comic curtain-raiser not to follow as on in this disc. For 1947 the sound is good, and the Naxos transfer is excellent.

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