Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Staircase Opera "The Medium" Torre Abbey Mon/Tue 31 Oct/1 Nov Exeter Guildhall Wed/Thur/Fri 2/3/4 Nov Crediton Congregational Church Sat 5 Nov 2016

Carolyn Harries
is "The Medium"

After several weeks preparation at Exeter University, Staircase Opera Company unveil their new production: Gian Carlo Menotti's 1946 two act masterpiece, "The Medium".

As a pre-opera treat, on Sunday 30 October, a select audience were invited to Torre Abbey for an afternoon introduction to the highly talented cast and directors of the opera.

Musical Directors Paul McClure (Exeter University Chamber Orchestra Conductor) and Roger Stephenson played piano duets by Bach and Mozart, and Roger gave a lovely solo performance of Beethoven's "Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia". Stage Director Martin Harvey (formerly Associate Director at Exeter Northcott Theatre - with Paul McClure) recited Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem, "The Raven".

What a great advertisement for an opera, to hear the Directors performing with such skill and flare in their own natural medium. The pianists thrilled us, while Martin's 'Raven' held everyone's attention like a magnet as he used his acting talent to add new magic to the familiar tale.

Paul McClure introduced each piece with his trademark wit and repartee - even, at one point, confusing Mozart's coloratura sister-in-law Josepha Hofer, with the dodgy union boss Jimmy Hoffa, whose organised crime career ended in his mysterious disappearance in 1975 - surely a first for any Master of Ceremonies.

The reference to Josepha Hofer led neatly into one of the most demanding coloratura arias in any opera, "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" (Hell's vengeance boils in my heart) sung by The Queen of the Night to her terrified daughter Pamina in Act 2, Scene 3 of "The Magic Flute". Suddenly, we were enjoying a very special ad hoc performance of "Der Hölle Rache" by student soprano Emma Summerfield. The performance was stunning, and quite unexpected. Later, Emma explained that she had prepared the performance for her audition at Glyndebourne - which, needless to say, was successful!

Emma was joined by fellow student Naomi Green for some more light-hearted songs from modern musicals. Mezzosopranos Carolyn Harries and Rebecca Squire, soprano Héloïse West and bass Julian Rippon added a liberal helping of beautiful arias and songs in English, Italian and German, all delicious and thoroughly appreciated. Every piece was skilfully accompanied by Paul McClure on the specially installed grand piano. For the modest entrance fee of just £5, the audience were treated to a royal afternoon of entertainment in the Torre Abbey Music Room.

With barely time to turn around, the cast then launched into two dress rehearsals of "The Medium" (after generously taking part in interviews for Phonic FM - to appear on 'Classical Journey' 2pm Friday 5 November).

Héloïse West, Rebecca Squire and Julian Rippon, having modestly taken a back seat in the interviews, saying they were merely 'stooges' in the opera, proceeded to display their outstanding skill at recitative and aria. The apparently mundane enactment of bereaved parents attending a sceance was transformed into an unforgettable and tragically moving scene by their musical and dramatic skills.

Julian Rippon, as Mr Gobineau, tenderly entreats the new customer, Mrs Nolan, to sample the spiritual solace of contacting her lost child through The Medium. His love for his dead baby boy is utterly real and believable. Héloïse West, as Mrs Gobineau, recounts the story of their loss in a spectacular set-piece. Rebecca Squire confronted (she believes) by her own dead child perfectly portrays the hope and despair of the desperate mother - calling to her lost daughter by her unbearably poignant nick-name of 'Doodly'.

Carolyn Harries, as Baba, is initially imposing and impressive as her alter-ego, the all-powerful medium 'Madame Flora'. However, having somehow become infected by her customers' enthusiasm and credulity, Madame Flora herself starts to feel that she is really in touch with the spirit world - and the experience is too much for her to endure. Returning to her everyday identity as Baba, she decends into paranoia and depression.

Unknown to the customers, Baba's seances are secretly facilitated by her daughter Monika and a mute foundling boy, called Toby, brought with them from their home country. Monika is played by the two young sopranos Emma Summerfield and Naomi Green. During the run they will take turns to sing the main arias, and duets with Baba, while the other voices the counterfeit ghosts for Madame Flora's deceptions.

A young actor from Uffculme, Fraser Goodland, plays the part of Toby. Without recourse to any words at all, Fraser magnifies the words and actions of Monika and Baba though his mute response. His performance is impressive and thrilling, quite an achievement for any actor - especially one so young.

The action and words are so enthralling, and often distressing, that the piano accompaniment is often not consciously heard. Subliminally, however, Menotti's syncopated and eratic rhythms scratch at our awareness, to such an extent that the dark mood and tragic scenes lead the audience into the depths of terror and madness. Paul McClure and Roger Stephenson, playing two separate pianos, are masters of Menotti's method, and add depth and meaning to every terrifying twist and turn in the tale.

There is violence too. Be prepared. A seat in the front row is not recommended for anyone of a nervous disposition, as the action reaches its gripping crescendo. More tender scenes - especially between Monika and Toby - also draw the audience in, but in a more loving and inclusive way.

Less well-known today, Menotti was a world-renowned composer and musician in his day (mid-twentieth century). This opera opens a window onto his creative brilliance, and many will be converted to his way of viewing the world. We are very fortunate to have two such talented Directors, Martin Harvey and Paul McClure, to bring his work to life, and so generously introduce a new audience to its wonders.

After Two performances at Torre Abbey (Monday and Tuesday 31 October and 1 November), the opera was to come to the Devon and Exeter Institution in Cathedral Close in Exeter for the evenings of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (2, 3 & 4 November). Disastrously, for all concerned, a terrible fire at the Clarence Hotel on Cathedral Green meant that vehicle access was restriced to emergency and demolition crews only. Installing a grand piano in the Institution was clearly out of the question.

At short notice, the company have been able to relocate to Exeter Guildhall in the High Street. Not only is this splendid news for all those with tickets, but also the larger capacity of the new venue means that more tickets are available, and the three performances, all of which were sold out, can now accommodate more people.

Even for those who cannot make the Exeter performances, there is a final matinée at 2.30pm on Saturday (5 November) at the Congregational Church in Crediton.

All performances include a highly informative, and inevitably humorous and engaging, talk on the play, given by Musical Director Paul McClure. There is also ample time allowed (the opera is only just over an hour long) for socialising and meeting the artists - over wine and a sumptuous buffet - replaced by a convivial afternoon tea party after the Saturday matinée at Crediton.

Staircase Opera Company
1. Torre Abbey Torquay
Mon 31 Oct / Tue 1 Nov 7.15 for 7.30pm
2. Exeter Guildhall
Wed/Thur/Fri 2/3/4 Nov 7.15 for 7.30pm
3. Crediton Congregational Church
Saturday 5 November 2.30pm (plus tea)
"THE MEDIUM" (1946)
An opera sung in the original English
Words & Music: Gian Carlo Menotti
This is the story of Baba who, as Madame Flora,
stages seances, cheating clients who seek contact
with deceased loved ones. Finding herself haunted and
terrified, she is driven to insanity and murder.
Menotti's music ranges from lyrically beautiful to the
highly dramatic. Includes challenging themes.
Director: Martin Harvey
Musical Director: Paul McClure
Assistant MD: Roger Stephenson
Baba / Madame Flora: Carolyn Harries
Mrs Gobineau: Héloïse West
Mr Gobineau: Julian Rippon
Mrs Nolan: Rebecca Smith
Monica: Emma Summerfield /Naomi Green
Toby: Fraser Goodland
Tickets: £15 - booking essential
(includes drinks reception & pre-show talk)
Torquay: 01803 293593
Exeter: 01392 274727
Crediton: 01363 777968

Héloïse West is Mrs Gobineau
recounting the tragic story of her son's death

Julian Rippon is Mr Gobineau
comforting his distraught wife

Rebecca Squire is Mrs Nolan
overwhelmed by the new experience
Emma Summerfield/Naomi Green
is Monika
providing the off-stage theatrics
Carolyn Harries is Baba
a misguided charlatan
Emma Summerfield is Monika
consoling her mother
Emma Summerfield & Fraser Goodland
are Monika and Toby
enforced collaborators and friends

Fraser Goodland as Toby
reflects the action

as Baba demands a response
which he cannot give
leads to remorse

the bereaved parents return
and are disabused of their delusions
all is revealed
but they insist on another seance
Baba descends into depression
and loses everything
"The Medium"
- a shocking tale 

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