It was very enterprising of the Triangle Opera Studios to choose a pair of significant early operas of Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) for performance in Weaver Auditorium on the campus of the Durham School of the Arts. The Old Maid and the Thief (1939-41) was one of earliest operas to be composed for radio broadcast performance, while Menotti's The Medium (1946) firmly established his international reputation. Menotti, like his companion Samuel Barber, was among the few composers who wrote for audiences and eschewed the tide of academic style that seemed to be aimed at fellow cognoscenti. Menotti served as both librettist and composer for both operas.
The Old Maid and the Thief makes use of such techniques as sound effects and an announcer to link numbers which Menotti styled after 18th century opera buffa. Menotti later adapted the opera for stage performance. The TOS performed the original radio play. The one act opera is divided into 14 scenes. Miss Todd, a busybody of high social position in a small town, had been deserted by a man some forty years before the opera's events. Her young and catty maid, Laetitia, hopes to avoid such a loveless life. The visits of the town gossip, Miss Pinkerton, mark significant dramatic changes. Bob, a handsome vagrant, shows up at Miss Todd's house and is taken in by both women who have taken an instant fancy to him. A cover-story is made up about his being a "cousin Steve." Miss Pinkerton's gossip about a violent criminal, whose description fits Bob, leads to mistaken assumptions by both Miss Todd and her maid. Miss Todd, at Laetitia's urging, takes up theft to support Bob's lazy lifestyle. As reality closes in, Bob and Laetitia sack Miss Todd's house and flee in her car, leaving her prostrate.
TOS presented the opera's original version with a balanced, strong cast of singers, and extras as studio staff. The golden pipes of bass-baritone Bob Chapman (host of WCPE's Opera House) was heard in the larger-than-life role of the Announcer. Other, mostly non- speaking roles were Rhonda Welfare as the Studio Floor Manager and Andrea Radford, who brought many comic touches to the role of Sound Effects Engineer. The quality of diction was high across the cast making most of the English text easy to follow, even in ensembles. In a sense, each lead portrayed two roles, an off microphone cast member and an "on air" opera character.
Mezzo-soprano Minifa Harris projected a strong, even voice and conveyed the evolution of Miss Todd from staid respectability, through enflaming long-repressed desire, to desolation. Soprano Kristin Moye combined considerable acting skills with a voice of remarkable range, peaking with some Lily Pons-like precisely focused highs. Her off-mike persona, as a vacuous valley girl, was hilarious. Her performance of the opera's most often heard aria, "What curse for a woman, is a timid man (Steal Me, Sweet Thief)," was excellent. Baritone Kurt Melges brought a powerful and warm sound to the role of Bob and his singing of "When The Air Sings of Summer" was very well done, fully conveying Bob's growing wanderlust. Soprano Monica Szabo-Nyeste was very effective as the gossiping Miss Pinkerton, whose every visit ratcheted up the tension at Miss Todd's.
Director Ken Smith's staging of the opera's radio version was very effective. Pianist Catherine Hammer did all that could be done as a substitute for an orchestra. Conductor Al Sturgis kept everything together and on track.
The Medium is a tragic opera in two acts, and like most of Menotti's operas, could stand alone as a play. The plot involves the Medium, her daughter Monica, and a mute servant boy Toby, who run a scam for bereaved people desperate to contact their beloved dead. The alcoholic Madame Flora rapidly disintegrates over the course of the opera, imagining being touched by a real ghost, eventually murdering Toby. The Medium's customers are Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau, her regulars who contact their two-year old boy, and a newcomer, Mrs. Nolan who wants to reach her teenage daughter. An off stage voice is sung by the same singer who has the role of Mrs. Gobineau.
While mezzo-soprano Stephanie Thurm has a lighter voice than I am used to for the role of Madame Flora, her embodiment of the Mediums breakdown was superb. Her voice was well projected and even across its considerable range. Soprano Faith Houck's slight physique belied a powerful, dark-hued timbre. The Gobineau's were effectively portrayed by soprano Ann Forsthoefel and baritone Kurt Melges as was mezzosoprano Shannon French as Mrs. Nolan.
Rising senior at Jordan High School Ryan Rowe was excellent in the silent role of Toby.
The sets by Mark Jenson, costumes by Beverley Hunter, and lighting by Elizabeth Droessler were efficacious. I was mystified by one aspect of Ken Smith's direction. The Carnie, mimed by Mark Jenson, with grand gestures rather like Drosselmeyer in Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker, is a character not found in Menotti's libretto or any staging with which I am familiar.