Pros: Powerful musical and physical performances from the cast.
Cons: The space seemed overwhelmed by the ambitions of the production and the piano could use a visit from the tuner.
There are few things nicer on a rainy night than stepping into a cozy theatre bar and finding a delicious, hearty bean and chorizo stew to warm you up. My first time at the Arcola, I was pleased to find such treasures in the eco-conscious converted paint factory before the show.
The Medium is part of the Arcola’s annual festival of new or underperformed opera, Grimeborn. While the performances are very strong I can’t help feeling that there is a reason that this one-hour opera is an obscure one. The main problem with The Medium is the programme notes about the composer’s inspiration are more compelling than the rather heavily drawn story with flat, stereotypical characters that he actually wrote. In real life, Menotti met a baroness who used to hold séances in her villa near where he was writing one summer. Being allowed to witness a séance, he found the experience a moving one which highlighted the creative and comforting power of belief that the baroness experienced in contrast with the mundane destructiveness of his own skepticism.
The eponymous medium is Madame Flora (Gráinne Gillis), a cynical, heavy-drinking, greedy charlatan who preys upon her gullible clients. Gillis has a powerful onstage presence and puts a real range into the emotional development of her character. Madame Flora is assisted by her ingenue daughter Monica (Julia Sitkovetsky), who feels very bad about all this, and the mute gypsy Madame Flora rescued from the streets and raised as a servant, Toby (Patrick Holt). Sitkovetsky and Holt have some touching scenes together exploring a forbidden world of their own, and Sitovesky’s duet with Gillis, The Sun Has Fallen and it Lies in Blood, is my favourite musical number of the piece. Madame Flora’s regular clients Mrs and Mr Gobineau (Phoebe-Celeste Humphreys and Jonathan Alley) comfort a newcomer to a seance, the recently bereaved Mrs Nolan (Lucy Anderson). There is also a character listed as ‘Spirit/Bird’ in the programme, aerialist Kahless Giles, who spends the performance dangling from a giant ring like a captive parakeet. Though beautiful to watch, I am guessing this part isn’t in the original score.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear Madame Flora begins to crack up, believing that she feels a hand on her throat during one session. She accuses Toby of trying to strangle her and becomes violent; Monica rescues him and soothes her mother to sleep, saying that she was imagining things. Later, the clients return and Madame Flora reveals to them all the tricks of her trade, insisting that they take back their money. They cling fervently to the hope of communication with the beyond and refuse to believe her. Then Madame Flora really lets her grip on reality go and it all ends in violent tears.
The production is somewhat beset by staging inconsistencies: Madame Flora threatens to shoot someone when in fact the only weapon she has to hand is a knife; one minute Monica seems perfectly capable of moving from room to room, the next she’s meant to have been locked in her own room the whole time. Why is Toby the orphan gypsy not wearing a shirt? Has Madame Flora deprived him of shirts from childhood? Perhaps I’m being overly literal for a production that is supposed to hover between the real and the supernatural, but on many points the design and direction read more as a lack of specificity.
The performers did get a very warm reception at the end and there was a full house for the show. It’s possible that I am missing something vitally poignant about this one, just as composer Menotti couldn’t see the ghost at his hostess’s séance and mourned his own lack of credulity. But I think the truth is that this one will appeal more to fans of the more rarefied, esoteric corners of the opera canon than it will to the average punter.
Composer: Gian Carlo Menotti
Director: Natalie Katsou
Musical Director: Maite Aguirre
Producer: Helen Bailey
Box Office: 020 7503 1646
Booking Link: http://www.arcolatheatre.com/tickets-for/arcola/grimeborn-the-medium
Booking Until: 16 August 2014