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ClassicsOnline Home » MENOTTI, G.C.: Medium (The) / The Telephone (Powers, Keller, Dame, Cotlow, Mastice, Rogier, Balaban)
The pairing of the comic opera The Telephone with the sinister music-drama The Medium proved to be a big hit for composer Gian Carlo Menotti when they opened together on Broadway in 1947. The double bill ran for over 200 performances, and enjoyed similar success in London during 1948. This original 1947 cast recording of The Medium, made by the American Columbia company, was first released in the United Kingdom in 1961, when The Gramophone wrote enthusiastically: ‘its effectiveness as a musical work for the stage is beyond argument.’
By Göran Forsling
Gian Carlo Menotti (1911–2007)
Opera in Two Acts - Libretto by the Composer
Monica - Evelyn Keller (soprano)
Madame Flora (Baba) - Marie Powers (contralto)
Mrs Gobineau - Beverly Dame (soprano)
Mr Gobineau - Frank Rogier (baritone)
Mrs Nolan - Catherine Mastice (soprano)
Toby, a mute
The Telephone (L’amour à trois)
Opera in One Act - Libretto by the Composer
Lucy - Marilyn Cotlow (soprano)
Ben - Frank Rogier (baritone)
The inspiration for the composition of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s one act opera The Medium was a visit during 1936, while he was staying at the small town of St Wolfgang near Salzburg in Austria, to a séance with some friends who wanted to achieve contact with the spirit of their dead daughter. Menotti later wrote of how the powerful desire to communicate with lost loved ones inspired him: ‘It gradually became clear to me that my hosts, in their pathetic desire to believe, actually saw and heard their dead daughter Doodly (a name, incidentally, which I have retained in the opera). It was I, not they, who felt cheated.’ Commissioned by the Alice M. Ditson Fund, The Medium was first performed at the Brander Matthews Theater at Columbia University in May, 1946. Immediately afterwards Menotti revised it, and this later version was paired with the comic opera The Telephone, which Menotti wrote as a curtain raiser, since The Medium was insufficiently long to sustain an evening by itself. Presented first by the Ballet Society at the Heckscher Theater, New York City, between 18th and 20 February 1947, with Leon Barzin conducting the first two performances and Emanuel Balaban the last one, this double bill opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, New York, on 1 May 1947, and ran for over 200 performances. This was a considerable number for the time, bearing in mind the subject matter of the two operas and the absence of the more usual characteristics of Broadway shows of the time, such as glamorous designs and energetic dance numbers. Following the studio gramophone recording of the Broadway production, made in October 1947 and conducted as it was on Broadway by Balaban, The Medium was successfully broadcast live on American television on 12 December 1948, and entered the repertoire of the New York City Opera during 1949. In 1951 an Italian film version directed by the composer in the style of a film noir was released. The Telephone has enjoyed a popular life on its own, as an effective piece of comic theatre. It is frequently performed by both amateur and professional opera companies. It received a single performance by the Metropolitan Opera, New York, on 31 July 1965, as part of a ‘Regards to Broadway’ concert presented at Lewisohn Stadium and conducted by Franz Allers.
Although the two operas are highly contrasted in subject matter, both work well in theatrical terms. The plot of The Telephone revolves around the attempts of Ben to propose marriage to Lucy in her apartment before he leaves on a trip. Numerous phone calls and conversations which preoccupy her prevent him from popping the question. Highly frustrated—to the point of trying to cut the telephone wires—he eventually leaves, but then he makes one last attempt by proposing to her from a phone booth outside in the street. She consents, and after a romantic telephonic duet, the piece concludes with Lucy making sure that Ben has her phone number. The subject matter of The Medium is considerably darker. The central character is Madame Flora, a fake medium. She uses her daughter Monica and her adopted gypsy son, Toby, whom she found with his tongue cut out, to stage séances. During one of these, Madame Flora feels something touch her. Following a confrontation with her clients, she confesses to her trickery, but her clients refuse to believe her: they are only too anxious to believe in the existence of their daughter as a spirit. Drinking heavily, Flora hears voices. When Toby manipulates a curtain to suggest the presence of spirits, Flora believes them actually to be present, with tragic consequences.
Marie Powers, the American contralto who sings Madame Flora in this recording, was a major figure in the early performances of both The Medium and The Consul, also composed by Menotti (available on Naxos 8.112023–24, together with the early opera Amelia al ballo). She was born in 1913 in Mount Carmel in Pennsylvania, and studied at Cornell University. She was a pupil of Giannina Russ in Florence and sang in Italian theatres under the name of Maria Drescentini. On returning to the United States she undertook further study with Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Paul Althouse in New York. She sang major parts such as Azucena in Il trovatore and Amneris in Aida with the American based San Carlo Opera Company, before achieving great success at the first performances of The Medium on Broadway. She repeated this success in England when the opera was produced in London at the Aldwych Theatre during 1948. Menotti cast her as The Mother in the first production of The Consul, a rôle which she repeated on record and when this opera was presented at La Scala, Milan, in 1951. In the same year she appeared as Fricka in a cycle of The Ring given at the Paris Opéra. She appeared as a guest with the Stockholm and Monte Carlo Opera Companies. She was based in New York from the late 1950s onwards, often appearing in community productions. She died in 1973. She evidently projected an extremely powerful presence on stage, and has been described as ‘a force of nature’.
The original Columbia-USA recording of The Medium had to wait fourteen years for its first release in the United Kingdom, when it appeared as part of the Philips company’s lavishly produced ‘Modern Music’ series (Philips at this time held the European distribution rights for Columbia-USA recordings). Reviewing it in The Gramophone magazine in November 1961, the usually highly fastidious critic Lionel Salter was extremely enthusiastic, commenting ‘As a recording it stands up extremely well: the singer’s word are admirably clear, all the orchestral details are audible, and only a slight lack of roundness in the tone betrays its age.’ Salter went on to defend Menotti the composer in robust terms: ‘his orchestration is brilliant, and his sense of the dramatic superb. Apart from his exceptional ability to act as his own producer (a first-class one) and librettist…he is constantly pulling out of his sleeve some coup de théâtre which deflects criticism on purely musical grounds.’ As for The Medium as a piece of music-drama, Salter was completely convinced: ‘its effectiveness as a musical work for the stage is beyond argument; and, think what you will of present-day tastes, the fact remains that The Medium and its like attract an audience to the opera-house which musically far superior works utterly fail to do—they at least seem alive, instead of being beautiful exhibits in a museum.’ And the performance itself was fully up to the demands of the work: ‘Thanks to Marie Powers’ famous and vivid performance as the raddled old fraudulent medium and the sympathetic singing of Evelyn Keller as Monica, and generally to a sense of ‘production’, this disc conspicuously succeeds in suggesting the stage action, even in so essentially visual a work as this is.’ His final verdict was noteworthy: ‘Almost full marks’.
The setting is Madame Flora’s parlour: a squalid room in a flat on the outskirts of a great city. At stage left a narrow staircase descends down to the street, with upstage a curtained doorway. Near the top of the stairwell there is a small buzzer which unlocks the door downstairs. At stage right stands a tall and primitive puppet theatre, with a white curtain to hide the standing puppeteer and downstage a door. Next to it is a small trunk, and below it a door. On the back wall there is a large astrological chart which becomes transparent when lit from behind. An old-fashioned three-legged table is set near the centre of the room, with above it a circular Victorian lamp, lit by means of a string. Near it are four chairs and a couch. In a corner stands a small statue of the Virgin Mary, a votive candle in a red glass jar burning in front of it. There are no windows and the time of day is ambiguous throughout the action.
 Introduction (Orchestra).
 As the curtain rises, Toby is kneeling by the trunk improvising a costume out of brightly coloured pieces of silk, necklaces and bangles stored within it. Monica stands near the couch, which is covered by a white dress and veil. She holds a mirror in one hand and combs her hair with the other. She starts to sing a song about a weeping queen and a gnome, and then urges Toby to get things ready before the return of Flora, known as Baba. She continues to comb her hair while singing her song. She tells Toby how magnificent he looks in his costume, and, putting her arms around him, wishes that he could speak. Baba enters and they both freeze.
 With sinister calm Baba scolds Toby for touching her things. She doubts that everything is ready for the evening’s business. Should anything go wrong she will make Toby pay for it, and swears at him. Monica tries to restrain her, and asks her where she has been. Baba replies that she has been collecting money owed to her. She orders them to get ready, and helps Monica into the white dress, covering her head with the white veil. Toby, after adjusting the lamp and table, opens the puppet theatre curtain, exposing various levers and cables behind it. He tests them—one levitates the table and another lowers the lamp. As the door bell rings. Toby hides in the puppet theatre. Baba presses the buzzer which unlocks the front door, and pretends to be absorbed in a card game at the table.
 Mr and Mrs Gobineau enter, followed by Mrs Nolan. They greet Baba who remains seated. They sit down. Mrs Nolan asks Mrs Gobineau if this is her first visit to Madame Flora. When she replies that it is, Mr Gobineau sings Baba’s praises. Mrs Gobineau asks with whom Mrs Nolan seeks to communicate and she replies her daughter Doodly, who had died the previous year. The Gobineaus tell her that she may both hear and see her. Mrs Nolan asks how long they have known Madame Flora and they reply that they have been coming every week for two years, to communicate with their little son, whom they hear laughing. Mrs Nolan asks when he died.
 Mrs Gobineau replies that it was long ago, when they were young and lived in France. As Mr Gobineau comforts his wife, Baba enters and says that it is time to begin. Almost hysterical Mrs Nolan jumps up and is led to the table by Mrs Gobineau. Mr Gobineau locks the doors and helps Baba place the chairs around the table. They all sit down. Baba pulls the string to turn off the light: the only illumination is the candle in front of the Madonna.
 Mr Gobineau calls for silence and asks for them all to touch hands. Baba begins to moan, simulating a trance. Suddenly she stops.
 Behind the chart hanging on the wall Monica slowly appears in a faint blue light. Monica sings as though she is a child asking for her mother. Mr Gobineau says it must be Mrs Nolan’s daughter, and urges her to talk to the spirit. Mrs Nolan hesitates but, encouraged by Mrs Gobineau, she asks the voice if it is Doodly her daughter and if she is happy. Monica replies that she is and that she can see her father. Monica asks if Mrs Nolan is unhappy. When she replies that she is very alone Monica tenderly seeks to comfort her, singing that death is only a change. She suggests that Mrs Nolan burns or gives away her (Doodly’s) possessions, and keeps only a little gold locket. This confuses Mrs Nolan who does not know of any such locket. Monica begins to disappear. As she vanishes Mrs Nolan rushes towards her but is restrained by Mrs Gobineau, who urges her to stay calm. Mr Gobineau calls for silence again, while Mrs Nolan continues to cry. Baba sighs and moans. Mr Gobineau calls for his son. Monica simulates the laughter of a child. Both Mr and Mrs Gobineau greet their child. The laughter dies away and the parents say goodbye.
 Baba hysterically asks who is there. She gets up suddenly, throws back her chair and turns on the light. She looks terror-stricken at her clients, runs wildly to the top of the stairwell, looks down and then back again. The clients look at each other in amazement. Baba asks who touched her. The clients reply that they do not know, but ask her why should she be afraid, such things have happened in the past. Trembling with fright, Baba says that they do not understand, a hand touched her in the dark. She asks the clients to go home, and to leave her alone. They hurriedly get their coats and file out, continuing to wonder what there is to be afraid of.
 As the door downstairs closes, Monica runs forward, still wrapped in veils. She asks Baba what has happened. Baba asks for a drink. As she drinks she tells Monica that they must stop what they do, and give the clients their money back. She tells Monica that while she was pretending to be in a trance, she felt a cold hand of a man on her throat. She is very afraid. Asking where Toby is, Baba draws back the curtains of the cabinet, revealing Toby motionless, as though in a trance. She accuses him of doing it to frighten her. Monica tells her to stop tormenting Toby. Monica pulls Baba away from Toby and sits down with Baba lying at her feet, her head on Monica’s lap.
 Monica gently rocks Baba, and as she sings to Baba, Toby picks up an old tambourine and softly accompanies her. After a while Baba sings too. A voice off-stage is heard calling for its mother. Baba asks if Monica has heard it. Monica tells Baba she is imagining things, but Baba says she is sure that she heard a voice. Baba asks Toby to go out and see who it is. He runs back and shakes his head when Baba asks him if he saw anything. When Monica tries to reassure her that no-one is there, Baba accuses her of lying. Baba forces Toby to kneel down and to pray to God for their souls. He kneels and Baba fetches the rosary and sits at Monica’s feet mumbling the ‘Ave Maria’. She suddenly stops praying. As a child’s laughter is heard, Baba hides her head in Monica’s lap.
A few days later, the same setting as for the first act.
 Introduction (Orchestra).
 Monica is sitting in front of the puppet theatre watching a performance. The puppets fall in a heap and Toby comes out to acknowledge Monica’s applause. Monica sings a song, while Toby dances barefoot around the stage. He suddenly seizes her arm. She asks him what is it that he wants to tell her, as he looks desperately into her face. She kneels behind him, as if her words were coming from him, and makes him look up as if she were still in front of him.
 Monica sings, as though she is Toby, that his heart is bleeding for her, Monica. He loves her and she haunts him day and night. She then comes out of character and pretends to be the Queen of Arundel and to scold Toby for talking to her in such a way. She reverts to their previous positions, and singing as Toby declares his love for her. As she reaches a climax Toby suddenly hides his face in her arms. She caresses his face, and looking into his eyes, tells him tenderly that he has the most beautiful voice in the world. As the outer door slams they hear Baba dragging herself up the stairs. Monica runs into her room, while Toby crouches in the corner.
 Baba appears, dishevelled and with a bottle in her hand. She asks Toby where Monica is. He points to the door at the right. Baba sits down and calls Toby to her, taking his head in her lap. She tells him that she loves him even though she is often harsh to him. It was she who took him in, and who looked after him. Then she asks him if it was he who touched her throat. Unable to contain herself she springs up and curses him. She then sinks back into her chair, regretting her outburst. Once again she asks him if he touched her that night. As her temper rises, Toby tries to run away. Baba grabs his shirt and tears it off his back. She indicates to him that she will let him marry Monica if he tells her what happened. Her anger continues to mount. She goes to the cupboard and gets out a long whip. Toby backs away from her in terror. He falls near the couch and she whips him in her fury at his inability to answer her. The doorbell rings loudly. Baba, panting hoarsely, walks to the buzzer and presses it. Monica runs in and demands to know what Baba has done to Toby.
 Mr and Mrs Gobineau and Mrs Nolan enter and greet Baba, who asks them what they want. They reply that it is the night of the séance. Baba agrees but then tells them that there will be no more séances. She offers to return their money to them and tells them that she cheated them. The clients refuse to believe her: they are convinced that they had real contact with their loved ones. Baba goes to the puppet theatre and pulls the cables which levitate the table and control the lamp. In the face of Mrs Nolan’s protestations Baba gets Monica to sing to her as though she were a spirit. Baba continues to ridicule them in the face of their conviction, even when Mrs Nolan tells them that she has found the locket. The clients plead with Baba for a séance, but with fury she tells them to go, and Toby to do the same. Monica pleads with her not to send him away, but Baba will not agree. In the face of Baba’s intransigence, Monica says that she will go too. As Toby leaves, Monica holds his hand briefly before he goes down the stairs. Seeing the puppets on the floor she starts to pick them up.
 Baba tells Monica to go into her room. Baba is left alone. A voice is heard calling for its mother. Baba locks the door of Monica’s room. It calls again: Baba pours herself several drinks before sitting down.
 Baba recalls many of the terrible scenes that she has witnessed, and which have not made her afraid. She prays to God while trying to convince herself that death is a final end. She laughs hysterically, and then prays for forgiveness before falling asleep. Toby re-enters from the stairwell. He walks cautiously to Monica’s room. Finding her door locked he scratches softly on it. Baba stirs in her sleep. Toby hides behind the couch and then slowly creeps out and knocks on Monica’s door. He runs to the trunk and rummages through the silks. The trunk lid falls shut sharply and wakes Baba. Toby hides behind the curtain of the puppet theatre.
 Baba wakes up with a start and calls out, asking if Monica is present. She takes a revolver out of a drawer in the table. Hysterically she calls out that she will shoot unless she gets an answer. The curtain moves and Baba fires several times at it. Slowly a spot of blood appears on the white curtain and spreads across it. Baba thinks that she has killed a ghost. Toby’s hands are seen clutching the curtain; the curtain rod collapses under his weight. Wrapped in the curtain he falls into the room. Monica pounds on the door of the room demanding to be let in. Baba unlocks the door, and Monica rushes in. She calls for help and leaves swiftly. Baba kneels by Toby, asking hoarsely if it was him.
The setting is Lucy’s apartment.
 Introduction (Orchestra)
 As the curtain rises, Lucy is busy opening a gift box which Ben has just handed to her. Saying it is just what she wants, Lucy unwraps a piece of abstract sculpture, and thanks Ben for it. He tells her that he is going away shortly, and that before he does he would like to ask her something. He cannot come to the point, and the phone near her rings. Lucy answers it and chatters away inconsequentially, asking how various friends and family members are. Eventually she ends the call.
 Lucy tells Ben that it was Margaret on the phone. She asks him if he would like to know what Margaret told her. The phone rings once again and Lucy answers it: it is a wrong number. Ben asks her to listen to him: time is getting short. She asks him if he would like to know the exact time.
 She tells him from the phone that it is four fifteen. Ben tries once again to get to the point of what he has to say, but the phone rings. Lucy answers it: it is George. They have a heated conversation. She hangs up and bursts into tears. Ben asks her not to cry. She goes out to get a handkerchief.
 Ben says to himself that all he can do is to try again and again. He compares the telephone to a two-headed monster, which has hundreds of lives and miles of umbilical cord. Noticing a pair of scissors on a table he picks it up and approaches the phone menacingly. Suddenly the phone rings; Lucy rushes in, and takes the phone protectively in her arms. She asks Ben what he was going to do to it. She tells him to put the scissors down, while he says that he was only acting in self-defence. He says they must have a quiet talk. Lucy replies that she must call Pamela and tell her of her quarrel with George. Ben pleads with her not to, but she says it will be a very short call.
 Lucy dials the phone and tells Lucy that she has had a quarrel with George. She goes into considerable detail about this. Ben says to himself that he must tell her that he loves her, but the telephone is constantly preventing him from doing so. Lucy continues with her phone call. Their conversations become intertwined, and Ben eventually leaves. Lucy notices his departure and wonders what it was that he wanted to tell her. At one side of the stage a curtain is drawn back to reveal a public telephone booth somewhere in the city. Ben is in it, dialing a number. The phone near Lucy rings: she says it must be Ben and quickly powders her nose and fixes her hair.
 Lucy answers the phone and asks Ben where he is. He replies that he is very near her. He asks her if she will marry him. She replies that she will, and tells him that she loves him. She asks him why it took him so long to ask her, while Ben blesses the invention of the telephone. She tells him that while he is away he must not forget her phone number. Ben assures her that he will remember it and will call her every day while he is away. She tells him to write down her number, which she gives him, as he struggles with a pencil and paper. The curtain falls.
— David Patmore
The sources for the present transfer were American LP pressings. The original recording was made on wide frequency range lacquer discs, which were dubbed to 78 rpm matrices for the initial release and later transferred to tape directly from the lacquers for the early LP set (Columbia OSL-154). Except for a couple of sides where some noise from the original discs can be heard (e.g., the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2 of The Medium), the sound could easily be mistaken for an early 1950s tape recording.
— Mark Obert-Thorn
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MENOTTI, G.C.: Medium (The) / The Telephone (Power...