Strauss/Menotti Double Bill at RNCM

For their first full-scale post-pandemic operatic venture, the Royal Northern College of Music offered an intriguing double-bill of the Prologue to Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Menotti’s The Medium. The Strauss was indeed an ambitious undertaking; not so much because it has a large cast – an ideal requirement for a student production – but rather because it is largely a conversational piece, with limited musical highlights. As such, for the audience to be engaged, they need to follow sufficiently Hofmannsthal’s characterful libretto and the central dilemma of the work, that a serious opera be combined with a harlequinade entertainment. If those present at the Manchester performance seemed to be not fully involved in what was going on, this was surely because the side-titles, with the translation of the German text, supplied more than could be easily assimilated at a glance; a précis would have been preferable.

Notwithstanding this handicap, the performers did well in characterising their predicament, aided by the astute decision to set the work in a 1970s conservatoire, with the serious opera students having to contend with their efforts being invaded by those being trained for lighter musical entertainment. In the pit, Peter Robinson conducted the excellent student orchestra in an idiomatic account of the Strauss score. The cast coped well with their vocalised utterances, although the brief purple patches, notably the Composer’s eulogy of music as eine heilige Kunst, did not quite have the necessary warmth and rounded tone.

The crowning achievement of the Ariadne Prologue, and that which linked it to the second half of the programme, was the theatrical dimension to Stuart Barker’s production. With its bustling movement and clever use of props this faithfully captured the atmosphere and melodrama of preparing a show, and led up to a truly memorable final tableau, created at the back of the stage, previewing the classical postures of an operatic presentation.

Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act opera, dating from 1946, is a sinister piece about a fake medium who gets her comeuppance when she is herself deluded by apparent ghosts. Played straight with insensitive handling, it can emerge as pure hokum but here, treated as a manifestation of theatrical art, it worked most impressively. Stuart Barker’s conceit was to show how theatre plays on the ambiguous relationship between fantasy and reality. This was achieved not only by hallucinating lighting effects (designer Paul Botham) but also by conjuring into the background as spirits from the past a dozen or so extras in Victorian costumes. And the realistic behaviour of Madame Flora, her daughter Monica and her clients was contrasted with the stylized movements of the imagined creatures.

Menotti’s score, while not remarkable for its originality, contains some effective passages for the mystical happenings. He also wrote gratefully for the female voice as demonstrated in the fine performances of Morgana Warren Jones and Georgie Malcolm as, respectively, the Medium and her daughter, the former finding the volume and penetrating tone necessary for the histrionics, the latter indulging in sweeter lyricism for her expressions of compassion for the victims. Robinson and his orchestra supplied the full-blooded accompaniment.

All in all, a presentation which convinced us of the power of the theatre to confront the vagaries of human existence, made all the more potent by its re-emergence after months of deprivation.