The Baltimore Concert Opera has returned to their pre-pandemic venue: The Engineers Club of Baltimore—housed in the grand and stunning Garrett Jacobs Mansion—with an unusual little gem of an opera. The Medium, penned by Italian American Composer and Librettist Gian Carlo Menotti, is an exemplar of the post–World War II opera style. Directed by Catrin Davies with the support of Conductor Joshua Hong, this production was a showcase of the professionalism and talent that this local gem of an opera company attracts.
The story is a fairly straightforward supernatural drama. Madame Flora (Jenni Bank), a medium, preys upon the desperation of families who have lost a child by convincing them that she can channel the spirits of the deceased children. Her daughter Monica (Amanda Sheriff), along with a young nonverbal servant named Toby (Peter Pattengill), participate in the séances in order to support the illusion Madame Flora has created. Things take a turn for the worse when Madame Flora has a frightening experience during a session. The duration of the opera follows this tragic tale, which occurs alongside Toby and Monica’s burgeoning romance.
I wasn’t very familiar with Menotti’s work going in, aside from its having been referenced as part of the verismo movement, which primarily emphasized realism in the operas and literary works produced therein. Mascagni and Puccini are more popularly associated with this particular period in opera history. However, as The Medium was first produced in 1946, I can see how a story revolving around loss and the desire to be reunited with loved ones would have appealed to a post–World War II audience. One of the things that is so wonderful about the Baltimore Concert Opera is that their format allows them to explore works that might be riskier for a larger company to produce, therefore increasing the exposure of lesser-known operas.
The performances in this opera were stellar. Bank’s Madame Flora is thrillingly believable. While the character is fairly odious, Bank is able to draw on the sympathetic threads that flesh her out. Her mezzo-soprano vocals are rich enough to hold all of these character traits together at once. Likewise, soprano Amanda Sheriff’s clear and bright vocals lend the character of Monica the necessary sadness and emotional weight required for her doomed romance with Toby.
Menotti’s libretto is very strong, containing a heartbreaking and poetic lyricism that’s rare in more modern works. Monica sings:
The moon is weaving bandages of gold.
O black swan, where, oh, where is my lover gone?
Torn and tattered is my bridal gown,
And my lamp is lost, and my lamp is lost.
With silver needles and with silver thread,
The stars stitch a shroud for the dying sun.
Pattengill, a BFA Dance student at the Peabody Institute, is an incredibly sympathetic Toby. The supporting cast is also strong: Samantha Lax as Mrs. Gobineau, Travis Lucas as Mr. Gobineau, and Taylor Hillary Boykins as Mrs. Nolan round out this talented group of singers. The company certainly hasn’t lost its touch in attracting top-tier talent over the duration of the pandemic.
Interestingly, the Baltimore Concert Opera also invited local magicians Annie Montone and Brian M. Kehoe from the local School of Magic Arts to entertain audience members before the show. This was a nice touch and typical of the thoughtfulness that this company puts into creating a welcoming environment for its productions.
The Medium was the perfect teaser for the Baltimore Concert Opera’s upcoming season, which includes the company’s first full-scale production: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. For longtime fans of opera and for those who are new to the genre, the Baltimore Concert Opera continues to be one of the premier companies attracting top talent in the Mid-Atlantic.
Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.
The Medium played November 12 and 14, 2021, presented by the Baltimore Concert Opera performing at the Engineers Club of Baltimore—11 West Mt. Vernon Place in Baltimore, MD. Tickets to upcoming shows in their 2021/2022 season can be purchased online.