"Afraid? Am I afraid?" The voice of Madame Flora the medium (mezzo-soprano Beverly Evans) is husky and trembling. She has lived without fear through the horrors of war and exile, but now her grip on reality is shaken. Can there be an occult power hidden behind the spiritualist tricks she plays on her clients?
In the middle of a se'ance -- before the eyes of the audience last night in the Terrace Theater -- something strange happened to her: "All of a sudden, I felt a hand -- a cold, cold hand . . . I felt on my skin every finger -- see! Like this!" That cold hand can be felt in the music of Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Medium."
"Opera" is as good a word as the next, but what happens in this production -- what will be happening 13 more times through Jan. 6 -- defies one-word description. "The Medium," in the production directed by Menotti for the Washington Opera, is total theater, tightly focused, with words, music, de'cor and stage action intensifying one another.
This is the second season "The Medium" has played in the Terrace -- not to mention this production's trip to the Edinburgh Festival last summer. The cast is essentially the same, with only one substitution -- soprano Barbara Hocher, performing excellently in the small but rewarding role of Mrs. Gobineau. The others have grown in the repeated performances of the past year, refining small details in what was already one of the Washington Opera's finest productions.
"The Medium" is hardly light-hearted entertainment. That much-needed ingredient opens the program in its companion piece "The Telephone," a half-hour of pure froth focusing on the eternal triangle between a man, a woman and her zebra-striped telephone.
"The Telephone" has only two singers: soprano Sheryl Woods and baritone Wayne Turnage. Both have improved their interpretation, which was quite good to begin with. Turnage has to spend a lot of time miming rage and despair while Woods sings an endless stream of idle chatter into the phone, delaying his attempts to propose marriage to her. He has found new nuances in this limited range of emotions, and when his turn comes to sing he does it eloquently and with rich tone. But the spotlight is mostly on Woods, who finds (with Menotti's help) an incredible number of different ways to sing "Hello, hello" into the receiver, with constantly changing emotional shades.
In contrast, the mood of "The Medium" is one of steadily increasing tension, with overtones of mystery. The opera broods on questions of mortality and human frailty -- first in the obsession of the clients who come to Madame Flora hoping to communicate with their dead children; later in the person of Flora herself, who changes from a strong-willed, physically powerful, middle-aged woman to a shaken, feeble, uncertain, drunken old crone almost instantaneously before the eyes of the audience. Evans' performance has to be seen and heard to be believed; it calls to mind some of the most powerful theatrical experiences I have known -- experiences like Judith Anderson playing Medea a generation ago.
The lyric beauty of the opera (which is considerable) is entrusted entirely to Flora's daughter Monica (soprano Nadia Pelle), who has haunting, folk-flavored arias and a waltz-song that undergoes remarkable emotional variations. Pelle is perfectly cast in this role, totally satisfactory. So is Menotti's adopted son Francis as the mute Gypsy boy Toby, a specialty of his, which he performs definitively. The eloquence of his mute gestures and a few strangled sounds rises to the level of the music entrusted to his colleagues. It is intensified precisely because of the strict limits within which it works.
John Fiorito and Judith Weyman, repeating the roles of two of Flora's clients, add considerably to the depth of the production and the contrasts that reinforce its strength. By now, the genius of Zack Brown has become familiar to regular patrons of the Washington Opera. His sets for this production are among the best he has done -- simple and witty for "The Telephone," cluttered and atmospheric for "The Medium," where everything contributes to the effect -- even the peeling, discolored wallpaper and the votive candle in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Cal Stewart Kellogg conducts the excellent small orchestra in a performance that is crisp, eloquent and splendidly paced.
But behind all these collaborative efforts, the success of this production is the work of the man who wrote the words and music and directed the performers. Gian Carlo Menotti, seated near the back of the theater, received a standing ovation at the end. He deserved no less.