The Medium was Gian Carlo Menotti’s (1911-2007) first international success. It was commissioned by the Alice M. Ditson Fund, and premiered on Broadway in 1947. The piece is short, only an hour long, but it’s an amazing psychological thriller. It tells the story of Madame Flora, a phony psychic driven insane by her first real brush with the Supernatural.
The work has a distinctive feel almost like what Verdi would call a “Tinta.” The “Tinta” is the overall musical character of an opera. For example, Falstaff, Verdi’s only comedy, has music which keeps the funny business barely under control. In The Medium, one can definitely sense the dark powers at work which contribute to Madame Flora’s madness.
Menotti’s music is easy to listen to, but that does not mean it’s not compositionally interesting. For instance the music for the ghosts in the phony séance contains high, soft percussion which sounds reminiscent of the music for Peter Quint, the ghostly valet in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Madame Flora is a very dark, rough character as such her music lacks lyricism, and is more dependent on pitch and the inflection of the text given by the singer. Great interpreters of the role like Joyce Castle understand this. In fact, much of Madame Flora’s music is reminiscent of Sprechstimme, a combination of speech and song used by early twentieth century composers as a greater means of psychological exploration.
For all Menotti’s innovation, the score still contains traditional arias. The most famous of these is probably “Monica’s Waltz.” Despite Menotti’s ability to compose tuneful melodies, there is always a sense of contrast. For example, the playfulness of “Monica’s Waltz” is offset by a lyrical section in the middle where she imagines what the mute boy she loves, would say if he could speak. Other famous melodies are used throughout the work to heighten the drama. For instance, “The Black Swan,” Monica’s lullaby, first appears shortly after Madame Flora’s otherworldly encounter, and the orchestra repeats the unsettling music as Madame Flora slowly descends into insanity.