Is there any 20th century composer less comfortable to contemporary tastes than Menotti? A rehashed Romantic, they might say, before modernism even got off the ground. The victim of his greatest success, his Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. Like Messiah, Amahl is nearly always performed by amateurs. Some wonderful, most B+, some awful. It requires a pre-adolescent singer of great skill. He always steals the show. I got thinking about this last Sunday after working with my magic student Gwen on a far less well-known piece, the so-called “Monica’s Waltz” monologue from Menotti’s The Medium. The vocal demands are advanced. The character herself is a young and very strange woman. It is for me one of the best solo scenes in 20th century opera. It has a fluidity that hectors with great penetration the bizarre actions of the character. She causes a boy with whom she lives (both are parentless) to mime a kind of love paean to her, all of which she sings. The piece is a kind of shadow duet in which the singer must convince in both roles, the mime in only one. To further complicate the situation, she makes the boy say, with her voice, delicious things about her which she starts believing. After a crescendo of more and more extreme description, including body parts, she makes him “say” in a wild high phrase, “Monica, Monica, fall in my arms.” Lost is she entirely in the physicality of singing, the abandon great illusions require. I hear this as a kind of polar opposite to Prospero’s great speech at the end of The Tempest where he sheds, abandons, his own manipulative magic, and tries to go straight (this is impossible). Monica, partly passive to begin with, builds an imaginative power she herself cannot immediately escape. Is it any surprise that after the climax of the aria she suddenly looks at the boy at her feet and notices that he is crying. She sings in a phrase, finally sincere, her magic involuntarily given over, “Toby, … you have the most beautiful voice in the world.” Do I have to remind you that that voice is hers? Music has great power. Characters on stage start listening to themselves. This usually ends badly.
My student also sings another duplicitous piece. This one by the greatest master of doing two things at once, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the last act of Le Nozze di Figaro, Susanna sings an aria of honey during which she knows her intended, Figaro (hiding in the bushes) thinks she is actually describing a liaison with the Count. She is sticking it to him in the most sublime 6/8 music ever. Why? Well, they usually say, she is teaching him a lesson. Or, Susanna runs the show in the opera so maybe she is “controlling” or in the middle, at the words “Vieni ben mio” she switches to sincerity, even pathos. I would say she falls into the sweet embrace of her own music.
Both of these pieces are performances sung by characters who are not supposed to look like they are performing. They are supposed to be “real.” But these performances make the characters more real, much more real, than they were before singing them. Menotti’s has something like melodrama (not a dirty word for me); Mozart’s something like life, maybe something even more uncanny than the utterances of crazy Monica. Both characters-singers fall into the arms of a music which cannot be resisted just as Don Giovanni and Pélleas do. Out of control. They must be sung by an artist with great control. It is from this nexus of dislocation that Prospero wrests himself in his final moments. It is in this nexus that artists strive. It is this nexus that makes both these pieces contemporary.