Operantics is a Sydney based community opera company dedicated to creating opportunities for Australian artists to perform and for audiences to have a financially accessible opera experience. In October 2023 the company produced “The Medium” (1946) by Gian Carlo Menotti. It is performed in two acts over 70 minutes. This is a delicious divertissement staged at the glorious North Sydney Independent Theatre.
Written in the aftermath of World War II, it invites audiences into the parlour of down at heel Madame Flora, a self-proclaimed spiritualist who survives conducting seances for grieving parents, using her own daughter Monica as a stand-in for their dead children. One evening, during one emotionally charged session, Flora suddenly feels an invisible hand grip her throat. Is this the spirit world seeking revenge? Works like this throw a spotlight on the enormous grief that followed World War II where so many families lost loved ones and were never to know what actually happened to them. It also allowed familiet to discuss death, belief,and find solace in "what id? What follows is the tragic story of the tormented Madame Flora, daughter Monica, and Toby – a mute servant boy to whom Flora is deliberately cruel.
The small chamber ensemble, conducted by Phillip Eames sits to one side, and the action is directed by Jane Magão on the split level of the Independent Stage. Design by Ian Warwick sees the stage decorated with flickering candles which create a terrific atmosphere as we enter the theatre. Flora’s shabby apartment is pulled together from various naturalistic bits and pieces - always tricky on a shoestring budget. The interpretation of the opera for this production is fairly safe. A drunken impoverished fraudster is at the heart of the piece. The world into which the needy venture feels squalid, low rent, the music is jarring and creepy. With less attempt at faithful realism the creative team could have lifted the rug on polite society and possibly created a chilling, noir-esque, intoxicatingly subversive world where fate and justice weave a nightmarish spell. There is something very unsettling about Menotti’s tense masterpiece after all!
Costuming is detailed and more successfully rendered, conjuring both period, class, and character detail.
The strong ensemble of singers bring the music and story to life. Elena Marcello as the bereaved widow Mrs Nolan - who is visiting Madame Flora for the first time – is assured. Mr and Mrs Gobineau are played by a stoic Ian Warwick and a heart-breaking Maria Hemphill. The Gobineaus - both veteran visitors to Flora’s salon - "communicate" with their deceased two-year-old son Mickey, who, having never learned to speak, only laughs. Maria Hemphill’s fine voice combined with her physical stillness gave her work a deep, sorrowful resonance and aided in providing a truthful context for participation in séance and other rituals to communicate with the dead. The role of daughter Monica was split between Louise Keast and Operantics Artistic Director Katie Miller-Crispe. The performance I attended Miller- Crispe gave a solid and moving performance of an unfortunate child both as unwilling participant in her mother’s fraudulent schemes and peacemaker during Flora’s drunken rages. The story ultimately revolves around the mute Toby’s tragic silence. Sam Martin as Toby was light, imaginative and physically articulate as he portrayed with subtle vulnerability.
According to the composer, “The Medium” is actually a play of ideas. It describes the tragedy of a woman caught between two worlds, a world of reality which she cannot wholly comprehend, and a supernatural world in which she cannot believe.” Ruth Strutt is a magnificent Flora in this production with vocal chops to die for. She portrays the dismayed and drunken Flora with a ferocious energy from her cruel and empty tricks played on her clients to her eventual descent into madness. Thrilling work!