The Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti is celebrated far more outside Italy than in his homeland, with his works being especially popular in the US. The (in)famous Italian critic Paolo Isotta wrote in the Corriere della Sera that, “Giancarlo Menotti is a mediocre 20th-century composer who is more interested in high society, aristocrats and billionaires than in music.”
Producing operas with gripping stories and even some hummable tunes went against the grain in Italy during the mid-1900s when the musical intelligentsia was celebrating the experimental works of Menotti's contemporaries such as Luciano Berio and Luigi Dallapiccola. In the 1980s, Donal Henahan for The New York Times wrote, “While it might be pointed out, and often was by detractors, that both in his music and in his librettos Mr. Menotti tended to prefer bathos to pathos, sensation to sensibility and violence to subtlety, the objective observer had to admit that similar charges could be leveled against Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo and most other successful carriers of the Italian opera tradition.”
Fashions change, and from this season the Estense Festival Varese will dedicate part of its annual programming to Menotti's music – Menotti was born close to the Swiss border near Varese, an hour's drive north of Milan.
Menotti's most successful works were composed before he was 40, and his career largely fizzled out after these early successes. He was just 13 when he was admitted to the Milan Conservatory, and he had already written two operas. In 1933, when he was 25, he graduated from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he had studied since 1928 (it was there that he met his fellow student and composer Samuel Barber, who became his partner) and soon after he completed his one-act opera Amelia Goes to the Ball, which was first performed in Philadelphia in 1937, and the following year was a hit at the Metropolitan Opera. Over the next decade he composed his best-loved operas: The Medium, The Telephone, The Consul, Amahl and the Night Visitors and The Saint of Bleecker Street.
Two of these operas – The Medium (1946) and The Telephone (1947), sung in Italian – formed the first evening dedicated to Menotti in Varese, in a production that was also seen in Pavia and Milan.
The Telephone is light and frothy, with Lucy's obsession with interminable phone conversations driving her suitor, Ben, to try and cut the phone's cord with scissors so that he can propose to her. The opera is updated to today's smartphone, with Lucy taking selfies between conversations (which works on stage better than it sounds) and Ben using the scissors to try and break the phone's screen. He finally proposes to her when he resorts to calling her number, and their final duet is on the telephone. Lucy was sung sparklingly by the attractive Sabrina Cortese who has a bright, agile coloratura, while Giacomo Nanni – a notable talent with a naturally rich baritone – was Ben.
The Medium starts out lightly but soon enters dark territory. The medium, Madame Flora, is a charlatan who holds fake seances, with her daughter providing the voices from beyond the grave. During a session with clients that want to contact their dead children, Madame Flora feels a phantom hand at her throat. She thinks it is Toby (a mute servant boy rescued from the streets of Budapest!) who helps with her deceptions. Thoroughly spooked, Flora sends her clients away, giving them back their money and trying to convince them that the seances are a sham. Disturbed and scared by the event, Flora drinks, and is alarmed when she sees movement in the darkness. She fires her pistol, killing the innocent Toby but believing that she has killed the ghost. The semi-staging by Serena Nardi slips at this point as the accidental killing is unbelievable with a clearly visible Toby just a couple of metres away from her.
Dominating the cast is Manuela Custer with her excellent, moving portrayal of Madame Flora. Custer is a fearless performer who gave a raw performance, with a bloodcurdling delivery of her spoken lines that, mixed with her powerful low mezzo notes, infused the piece with atmospheric realism. Watching her was like seeing the role in cinematic closeup with her best-actress-worthy Gloria Swanson eyes and a shudderingly convincing portrayal of madness.
The fine Sabrina Cortese and Giacomo Nanni returned to play Mr and Mrs Gobineau, parents of a dead child; Ilaria Molinari was a lush-voiced Mrs Nolan, who has lost her daughter; and Maria Eleonora Caminada gave a well-judged performance as Flora's daughter. The actor Samuele Satta as Toby was intense throughout.
The Orchestra da Camera Canova was already onstage when the audience entered, with elements of scenery in front of them. It was dynamically conducted by Enrico Saverio Pagano, still in his twenties, and the founder of the orchestra. They are making big strides: last year their recording of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and 7th Symphony came out on the Sony label. He's obviously passionate about this music and his enthusiasm came through in every bar.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.