Menotti's The Medium is a good enough opera that you could probably stage it inside a large cardboard box and it would still be an effective piece. An immensely moving one, too. The production staged Thursday night by the Curtis Opera Theatre at the Perelman Theater (and repeated this weekend with a rotating cast) has a lot more going for it than a cardboard box, but it is an odd one.
The parlor of the psychic Madame Flora trades the usual Victorian decor for something more post-modern-severe, lit up in neon pink and saturated blues. The stage action has acquired a few extra characters who are mostly mute — part-ghost, part-clown.
The production also comes with some new connotations by way of what functions as an added prelude. Because of its brevity, The Medium is often presented on a double bill, and here Curtis Opera chief Mikael Eliasen and stage director Emma Griffin have preceded it with the Weill/Brecht Mahagonny: Ein Songspiel.
One work moves into the next with no pause (along with a few stray characters). Musically, the two scores couldn't be more different, yet the dissonance that jars most is visual. The set remains for both pieces, and the creative team's concept of an off-kilter room aims to heighten the detached-from-reality atmosphere in a way that works for both. But the poignancy of The Medium — its sweet, tragic incense — doesn't hold up well in the stark, bright light that beautifully highlighted the absurd in Mahagonny.
The Weill is a set of songs, a kind of trial sketch for the opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and the intimate piece for a small ensemble of singers and orchestra bears the striking Weill sound that is like no other. Not jazz, not classical, not cabaret, Weill is a one-man genre.
There's a sleazy quality to his music that perfectly mirrors Brecht's running social commentary on booze, boys, whores, and money. Expecting students to fill out the tired, jaded place these characters inhabit is a stretch, although musically and vocally they were all strong, as was the orchestra and leadership in the pit from Carlos Ágreda.
The Medium, though, went several layers deeper. Whatever you have liked or not liked about any of the creative concepts at the Curtis Opera department over the years, there are always the students, and in Thursday night's cast, mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms was a standout. As the alcohol-addled medium Flora, Bottoms explored the treacherous corners of her character by coloring her voice in a handful of highly variable shades. By turns cruel (to Toby, the mute boy played like a kicked cat by Seongwo Woo) and horrified, Bottoms' Flora nearly seemed to stem from something personal in the mezzo's past. As Monica, her daughter, Lindsey Reynolds was sweet and well on her way to finding some of the richer vocal possibilities in this famously malleable role.
Both The Medium and the Mahagonny Songspiel descend into hell — a hell that creeps in around the characters, brought upon themselves. There's a sense in hearing The Medium these days, though, that something else has come full circle: Gian Carlo Menotti's music. It fell out of favor in certain quarters when hard-edged dissonance prevailed. Now maybe we can hear it for what it is: full of shrewd emotional gestures and part of a continuum in vocal music in which text and tone become entangled in a way that brings greater meaning to both. Is there another aria anywhere in which harmonies and deft orchestration access tears more readily than in Monica's "Black Swan" lullaby?
This odd pairing of pieces conjured anew an unexpected emotional arrival point. No sooner has Mahagonny, in all its acerbic economy, ended than The Medium begins. The lush if urgent strings suggest we are about to find humanity in a better place, and fluttering winds further raise the hope. It's a reassuring feeling, even if it doesn't last long.