Opening night's centrepiece proved to be Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium, an endlessly intriguing work that plumbs the power of faith and denial, originally premiered at Columbia University in the wake of WWII.
Mezzo-soprano Donnalynn Grills held nothing back in the complex dual role of Baba and her alter ego, Madame Flora, a scheming racketeer who holds seances for grieving parents desperate to make contact with their dearly departed children. This local opera pillar was particularly riveting as she performed ritualistic dances in (real) candlelight, or even more strikingly, flailing in fury at hapless 'gypsy' mute Toby (Alex Menec), and in her chilling solo "Afraid, am I afraid?"
Soprano Jessica Kos-Whicher sang Monica, Baba's dutiful daughter who is in on the ruse, and displayed crystal clear vocals and laser-like control in each of her arias. The haunting dark lullaby "The Black Swan" was sung to a drunken Baba, and nightmares are made of such stuff as her eerie chanting of'Mother mother, are you there?" while pretending to be the ghost of little Doodly, draped in shroud-like white gauzy linen.
In her LOC/FO debut, mezzo-soprano Kelly Robinson gave a masterfully-paced performance as Mrs. Nolan. Her climatic line "Why did you leave me?" sung to Kos-Whicher's 'ghost' packed an emotional wallop. So too did the sight of this gifted singing-actress slamming her arms against the upstage brick wall as if hurling her body across her own child's casket.
Other standout performances included soprano Ashley Rees's trusting Mrs. Gobineau, and baritone Scott Braun as her husband. The latter's robust vocals provided strong ballast for both Robiason and Rees's increasingly distraught mothers.
The devil's always in the details--especially for two supernatural shows--and certain directorial choices could have gone even further. For example, Baba swilling whiskey from a botde rather than the comparatively health-conscious carafe of water used here would have injected a compelling subtext about the perils of alcoholism --life's original 'spirit.'
The tricky-to-play role of Toby can easily lapse into stereotypes, which this production thankfully resisted. However, Menec's Toby appeared overly restrained--at times downright preppy. This truly fascinating character has the capacity to make a silent statement about the 'other' in society--whether he's perceived as disabled or culturally disparate; as someone to be fearfully loathed, or fearlessly embraced. Menotti's message remains as timely as it was in 1946, resonating even more powerfully in a bullying world wracked by fear of those who seemingly don't belong.
The evening also included Henry Mollicone's The Face on the Barroom Floor, first performed by LOC in Oct. 2008. This revival featured a well-matched cast whose whole was much greater than the sum of its parts.
Originally composed in 1978 for Central City Opera and based on a libretto by John Bowman, this honky-tonk, tale-within-a-tale begins as Isabel/Madeline (soprano Karen Santos) and Larry/Matt (tenor Nolan Kehler) stumble into the Face Bar in Teller House, Colorado. Bartender Tom/John (baritone Don Larsen, deliciously reprising his role from 2008 and now situated behind the venue's real bar) explains why a mysterious visage is painted on the floor. As the 35-minute piece unfolds, the young couple morphs into their 19th-century counterparts, inevitably leading to not one, but two tragic shootings.
Santos was convincing in her prima donna moment as Isabel, even performing a snippet of Verdi's "Sempre libera" over a boogie-woogie bass. Her warm tone and seamless phrasing were on full display in the lyrical ballad "He Came to the West," and she provided the soaring countermelody during the trio, "He paints the portrait of his lover." Her counterpart, Kehler, matched her performance note for note, including his cutting "Bravo! Bravo!" and a gaily sung "The face on the barroom floor."
Performing in English can sometimes set up diction traps without the benefit of the usual surtitles, but the performers mostly succeeding on this account. A few sightline issues arose due to the crowded cafe table configuration, despite Loewen's thoughtful staging that moved singers throughout the audience.
A special bravo to the evening's musical director, Lisa Rumpel, strategically tucked away into a corner on her grand piano. She easily tossed off both composers' ghoulishly difficult scores while proving again her mettle as one of the city's finest collaborative pianists.
Caption: Don Larsen (Tom/John) & Karen Santos (Isabel/Madeline) in Little Opera Company/Flipside I Opera's The Face on the Barroom Floor