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ArtHaus Musik 101515
05 Oct 2011

Menotti in German

As long as one keeps in mind that historical value is not the same as aesthetic quality, this DVD of early 1960’s live German TV performances of two short Gian Carlo Menotti operas makes for fascinating viewing.

Gian Carlo Menotti: Die Alte Jungfer und der Dieb / Das Medium (Studio Productions, 1961 and 1964)

Die alte Jungfer und der Dieb (The Old Maid and the Thief) — Miss Todd: Elisabeth Höngen; Laetitia: Olive Moorefield; Miss Pinkerton: Hilde Konetzni; Bob: Eberhard Waechter. Vienna Volksoper Orchestra. Wolfgang Rennert, conductor. Historical Studio Production, 1964.

Das Medium (The Medium) — Madame Flora: Elisabeth Höngen; Monika: Maria José De Vine; Toby: Nino Albanese; Mrs. Gobineau: Sonja Draksler; Mrs. Nolan: Hilde Konetzni; Mr. Gobineau: Norman Foster. Vienna Volksoper Orchestra. Armando Aliberti, conductor. Historical Studio Production, 1961.

Otto Schenk, stage director. Maxi Tschunko, costume design. Gerhard Hruby, set design.

ArtHaus Musik 101515 [DVD]

$26.99  Click to buy

Translated into German and filmed in the standard grainy black-and-white of the day, Die alte Jungfer und der Dieb and Das Medium benefit from sharp direction (by a young Otto Schenk) and expert performances. The scale of one’s enjoyment, of course, will be determined by the depth of one’s appreciation for the operas of Gian Carlo Menotti — and “depth” is probably not the term of choice in that context.

In a bonus feature interview, recorded at the time of the broadcasts, Schenk calmly argues for the merits of Menotti’s work, claiming they show a “typical American setting” and advocating for the appeal of the music, despite what Schenk calls its “banality” (as the subtitles translate it). Perhaps the original German word has a different connotation, but “banality” seems apt.

With their small casts and domestic settings, the Menotti works seen here are perfect for the TV screen. The Medium in particular seems like a lost episode of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, with the odd innovation of sung dialogue. Both operas, however, feel stretched to fill an hour, especially The Old Lady and the Thief. In this supposed comedy (Scheck’s description), a spinster takes in a homeless man, due to her maid’s pleading and the spinster’s own suppressed desire. When the two later hear that a thief is on the loose, they suspect it is their man. In the decidedly un-comic conclusion, the man reveals he is not a thief — and then, with the maid, absconds with the spinster’s most precious possessions, leaving her bereft. This sour piffle gets a better performance than it deserves, in remarkably effective German. Elisabeth Höngen’s Miss Todd, the spinster, achieves real pathos, and Olive Moorfield strikes some sparks as her maid Laetitia. As the supposed thief Bob, Eberhard Waechter shows a little bit of what made him a Don Giovanni worthy of leading the starry ensemble on the famous Carlo Maria Giulini recording. Menotti’s debt to Puccini weighs down almost every bar of music, from the comic fast music right out of the opening to Madama Butterfly (and Menotti seems to acknowledge this by naming a minor character Miss Pinkerton) to the melodic arias. But where Puccini’s music grows in impact with repeated exposure, Menotti’s never develops beyond a superficial appeal.

The Medium serves as a showcase for a soprano “of a certain age,” and Höngen reveals her depth by taking on this role and making it clearly distinct from the spinster. Here she delineates Madame Flora, a bitter woman who leads séances with people who have recently lost a loved one, knowing that their pain and sensitivity will make her clients vulnerable to her cheap effects. A female assistant and Toby, a deaf-mute young male, support her, but when Madame Flora herself feels a cold hand on her throat at the end of a seance, she chases her customers out and collapses in terror. In the extended act two, her paranoia grows, until finally she mistakes Toby, hiding behind a curtain, for a ghost, and shoots him. Before she goes crazy, however, Menotti gives Madame Flora an extended scene of high-octane vocalism, owing quite a bit to Minnie from Fanciulla in act two.

Despite the questionable merit of Menotti, anyone with any nostalgia at all about the early days of TV and live performance should seek out this DVD. Even the interview is a treat, with its bland interviewer sitting at a bare desk before a curtain, asking Otto Schenk to explain the show for the audience. Schenk clearly believes in these works, as the committed acting of his singers indicates. So as a historical document rather than artistic artifact, this DVD gets a recommendation.

Chris Mullins

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