Monday, April 1, 2013

Menotti: The Saint of Bleeker Street

While I'm aware there's a good number of folk who despise the music of Gian Carlo Menotti, I'm going ahead with this post anyway.

I recently re-watched the old telecast of "The Saint of Bleeker Street" from City Opera and found myself sitting in a puddle of tears throughout. A friend told me it was "too manipulative." Too manipulative? Perhaps, but cannot the same thing be said of not only many operas, but of art and music in general? These are not presented as "facts" but as a story told by a particular storyteller who invites us (and yes, manipulates) us into trying to see things as he or she does. I think a willingness to be manipulated is part of the agreement we make whenever we enter an opera house, theatre or museum.

Menotti's "simple story" is in truth, no such thing; its layers peeling back like an onion revealing more and more. Here we are confronted with a tale of fanaticism, the quest and questions for a spiritual journey, a community, an abiding friendship, misunderstanding, loyalty, jealousy, murder, poverty, and ultimately hope. All of this hits us full force, and clearly, yet in the end Menotti leaves more room for discussion, as the opera's many questions left unresolved (except to Annina herself, who cannot tell us).

I find Menotti's score for "Saint" to be his most beautiful and musically, one of the finest of the mid-20th century operas, Yet, still it is frequently dismissed as "warmed over Puccini," while nothing could be further from the truth. I'd say Menotti puts as much Alban Berg into his score as he does Puccini, but ultimately speaks here in a voice that, is distinguished and clearly very much his own. He understands (and relishes) the relationship between dissonance and consonance and (when needed) unafraid to tug at our heartstrings for those who, like myself, welcome having them so tugged. It is obvious that he is writing from love and passion as well as from skill. In this work, his writing for strings rivals (and in some ways is similar to) that of Sibelius or Tchaikovsky. The tension of the string movements in the opening recalling a certain, more celebrated work by Mr. Barber. While giving us much to ponder, the long-phrased melodies for both orchestra and singers, can go directly to the heart (as my favorite opera composers can do) causing us both to think and feel simultaneously with the ability to overpower more than one sense at a time.

The writing for chorus in this opera is majestic and powerful. Ingeniously, Menotti's libretto never places this cathedral-like music in a vaulted church setting, but rather in a cold water flat, adding yet another dimension of thought . . . another layer of palpable emotion.

The opera is packed with marvelous arias: Annina's opening Stigmata aria; Michele's "I know that you all hate me"; Desideria's big aria, all dotted between numerous duets and ariosi and ensembles. The scenes of loyalty and friendship, the gentle caring between the Annina and Carmela particularly unforgettable. There is the intermezzo between the 2 scenes of Act I, which serves as a sort-of postlue to Don Marco's remarkable arioso . . . this is powerful, thought-provoking and yes, formidable stuff. Menotti's second big intermezzo joining the 2 scenes of Act III is of such haunting beauty it could stand alone as a concert piece. I find it difficult to comprehend why this opera is so seldom performed. How fortunate I was to attend several performances at Washington Opera back in the 80's, in a stunning performance directed by the composer himself, a production mounted in honor of his 80th birthday. Remarkable.

City Opera was blssed to have Catherine Malfitano and Diana Soviero, as Annina and Carmela; each giving a performance nothing short of amazing. Malfitano, while a bit strained at some moments handles the music skillfully and theatrically, well, she is devastating. No less devastating is the performance of Soviero, who turns a secondary role into a virtual tour-de-force; caressing each note with tenderness and emotion. As Annina's protective best friend, Soviero seems the one person who best understands Annina's desires. Even when wordless, kneeling beside her friend's chair - Soviero's face radiates an ecstasy that transcends words, mirroring the mystical Annina's faith as she embraces, and welcomes death. We watch her, cradling with love, her friend's lifeless body, suppressing her sobs as she lifts Annina's arm to accept the ring of faith. At this moment, Carmela's situation is more heartbreaking than her friend's death because we identify immediately with her grief. This is great opera. This is great theatre.

A little while after I came back down to earth, and dried my eyes, I decided to play a bit more of Mr. Menotti's music. pulled out some more music of Menotti; the Piano Concerto (a scintillating performance by Earl Wilde). It belongs in a category with Prokofiev, Barber and Poulenc. With its Scarlatti and Bach like polyphony it requires both bravura and charm, and would offer a nimble fingered pianist - something unusual and rarely played. I think audiences would eat it up. Lord knows, I'd prefer hearing it once in a while as an alternative to yet another performance of Brahms or Rachmaninoff.

Of all Menotti's operas, I think "The Saint of Bleecker Street" is most deserving of (finally) getting mounted at the Met. Even though conceived for The Broadway Theatre (where it ran for 92 straight performances), it's a grand work and deserving of the first rate treatment (and an HD performance). I already have a cast in mind!

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