SAN DIEGO — Once upon a time, say 40 years ago, Gian Carlo Menotti struck many enlightened observers as an important force in American opera.
No one regarded him as a progressive. His music was too easy, too calculated, too accessible, too closely aligned with the kitschy Puccini tradition for that.
Still, no one doubted his bold theatrical instincts, his uncanny flair for the flamboyant device or his unabashed talent as a manufacturer of high-falutin mood music.
Time has not been particularly kind to Menotti. His old operas--the ones we used to applaud in spite of our better instincts--tend to look and sound like primitive period pieces today. His recent efforts, which show little stylistic development or creative expansion, tend to fall victim to their own delusions of grandeur.
Contrary to what one reads in the puffy San Diego Opera program magazine, it is difficult--no, impossible--to regard Menotti as "America's greatest living composer." In the irrational world of opera, however, he still may be America's greatest living crowd-pleaser.
The productions of "The Telephone" and "The Medium" that opened at the Old Globe on Saturday certainly are authentic. Menotti-the-knowing-stage-director was on hand to assure fidelity to Menotti-the-facile-tune-and-tale-smith.
These are lavish productions, stylishly designed (for the Washington Opera) by Zack Brown and adroitly conducted by Karen Keltner. They are well cast, and they score their all-too-obvious points effectively in the small theater. They also strike at least one iconoclast as somewhat decadent celebrations of misplaced nostalgia.
The curtain-raiser need not detain us. "The Telephone" is an inane little skit about a stupid young man who has a lot of trouble getting his fatuous girlfriend's attention long enough to propose marriage. The two dolts obviously deserve each other, and their harmless musical drivel remains an emphatically trivial pursuit. Sorry, wrong number.
At least one could applaud the suave comic turns and nimble vocalism of Wayne Turnage as the baritonal suitor and Amy Burton as the giddy-soprano suitee. The delirious-Deco set proved mildly amusing, too.
"The Medium" represents a more thorny challenge. It is a reasonably taut, shamelessly tawdry Grand Guignol melodrama about a prima donna of seedy seances who is haunted by her own ghosts.
Menotti had nothing new to say here. But at least he said his old things with a firm sense of the power of the cliche. His music treads water and contrasts saccharine with cheap pepper ever so adroitly. The story creaks along ever so brashly.
Back in 1947, this man at least knew how to unpack his big bag of secondhand tricks with panache.
The San Diego performance was dominated--no, gobbled up--by Beverly Evans. As the haggard, craggy, boozing, guilt-ravaged Madame Flora, she stalked the boards like a cross between an outraged Klytemnestra lost in the slums and a lyrical bag-lady in distress.
She snarled the music in a resonant, chesty Sprechstimme , projected every word crisply and exulted in pathetic grotesquerie. She dared the skeptics out front not to take her seriously. In an awful way, she was wonderful.
She was complemented in squalid veristic splendor by Nadia Pelle as her arch-innocent, limpid-toned daughter and by Francis Menotti (the composer's adopted son) as her mute, aging-nature-boy victim. Barbara Hocher, Harlan Foss and Nancy Carol Moore etched precise character studies as her self-deluding customers.
Brown's set, here a detailed reproduction of the old medium's seedy apartment, looked painstaking sordid and, as such, properly oppressive.
The virgin waltzed. The voiceless martyr tumbled. The old hag heard pretty voices and went crazy.
Blood. Guts. Moans. Screams. Arias. Ensembles. Shots. C-major chords.
They simply don't make operas like this anymore. That may be just as well.