Gian Carlo Menotti was inspired to write The Medium after a real-life encounter with an eccentric baroness who was convinced of the truth of spiritualism, communing with her dead daughter in a nightly seance. Joining her one night, Menotti did not himself believe, but was profoundly moved (his biography even mentions tears) by the fact that the baroness was absolutely certain her daughter's spirit was made present by the ritual.

Gráinne Gillis (Madame Flora/ Baba) © Yiannis Katsaris
Gráinne Gillis (Madame Flora/ Baba)
© Yiannis Katsaris

It is, therefore, surprising that The Medium is largely an excoriating criticism of the emotional treachery perpetrated by spiritualists, as well as a fairytale-like warning against stirring up the dead, who inevitably come to haunt the pseud psychic Baba, or Madame Flora as she is known to her clients (Gráinne Gillis). Menotti's initial pity and empathy for his deluded baroness is hardly to be found in this piece: the bereaved parents who come to seek Madame Flora's help (Mr Gobineau, Jonathan Alley; Mrs Gobineau, Phoebe-Celeste Humphreys; Mrs Nolan, Lucy Anderson) are all shattered by their loss, and easily duped, but also creepily determined to "have" their dead, even when Madame Flora herself admits angrily that she is a fraud. The Gobineaus, obsessed by their little drowned child, might well remind us of the parents in Nicolas Roeg’s masterful Venetian horror story Don’t Look Now. Madame Flora is an aggressive and unpredictable alcoholic, ruthlessly exploitative and desperately needy, who beats and mistreats her mute servant-boy Toby before descending gradually into the madness in which she kills him, mistaking him for a ghost. Her final cry of triumph, "I've killed the ghost!" is bitterly, existentially ironic - but by then, she is beyond any rational consciousness of her actions.

Opera View have created a small and intense production in which Menotti's music comes across clearly: a ravishing piano accompaniment, played by Maite Aguirre, veers from schmaltzy sweetness, reminiscent of a silent film score, to bursts of plunging malevolence. Menotti’s strongest melody of all, the dark lullaby “The Black Swan”, sung first by Monica and later, tragically, by Madame Flora, is hypnotically beautiful. All the singing is strong, particularly from the gorgeously-voiced Phoebe-Celeste Humphreys as Mrs Gobineau, and from Julia Sitkovetsky as a lustrously attractive Monica. Sitkovetsky draws a movingly accurate portrait of a loving daughter living with an alcoholic parent, constantly negotiating every changing mood, hopelessly desperate to absorb the tension, hide each problem and control what will happen next. Monica’s treatment of Toby, somewhere disturbingly between a kid brother, a best friend and a lover, is exploitative and selfish, yet we do feel that, in a blinkered adolescent way, she truly loves him.

Toby, a mute character played by Patrick Holt, is acutely well-drawn, the right mixture of innocent assurance and terrible vulnerability; there is nothing so bewitching in opera as a character who is deliberately silent, and while it is a considerable test of acting, Holt rose to the challenge faultlessly. One of the most interesting aspects of Toby is that no one, including the audience, can ever be quite certain of how sane or conscious he is: Holt gave us some thrilling clues, yet kept the character intriguingly (and aptly) opaque. The inclusion of the aerialist Kahless Giles slightly mystified me in Act I, where (although intriguing and impressive to watch) he did not seem to contribute anything coherent to the action, but all was justified in Act II when he became Toby's puppet and bird to charm Monica, in a sequence of movement which was quite brilliantly choreographed.

Although I did enjoy this, I did so with one reservation, which was that the vibrant emotional shifts of Menotti’s opera as a whole don't always shine through with clarity, perhaps as a result of slightly cautious directing from Natalie Katsou. We have a collection of good ideas and talented performances, but they never quite unite into a compelling whole; Madame Flora’s descent into madness, though well acted by Gillis, could for me have been more dramatic, while the stories of the bereaved parents, which have such dramatic potential, seem somewhat muted. The exceptionally simple staging and costumes (by Maria Kalamara and Salome Makaronidou) also mean the audience have to work quite hard to establish what is going on, most of the time; spiritualists tend to rely on elaborate smoke and mirrors, but we get neither here, and at times the very minimalism seems to highlight the cruel and empty trick Madame Flora is playing on her clients. Menotti’s concept has a glitteringly macabre, almost Punch & Judy quality which is never quite reached here. Nevertheless, this is an interesting production whose main experimental innovation (the inclusion of an aerialist) comes off well, and altogether makes a good start for Grimeborn 2014.