A war-torn and vigorous production of The Medium 

Worth seeing for Pascoe's set design alone

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Gian Carlo Menotti's classic opera, The Medium, returns to the Spoleto Festival USA in a visually imaginative and forcefully executed production at the Dock Street Theatre.

Whether the opera itself will be to everyone's taste seems unlikely. As a psychological opera, The Medium's depiction of complex and at times frenzied mental states lacks the profound dramatic and musical characterization found in operas like Otello and Wozzeck. This deficiency might be due to The Medium's relatively short length of an hour, yet it is this concision that powerfully underscores the work's dramatic contrasts. But the opera pulls enough levers — thwarted desire, deception, a loaded pistol — to guarantee sufficient narrative interest to sustain its two brief acts.

John Pascoe's stage direction in itself justifies the price of admission. It is simply brilliant: economical in its use of space, dramatically adroit, suggestive, subtle and lurid at exactly the right moments. Madame Flora's parlor looks like the bombed-out husk of an antique shop, with rubble cleared to one side and chairs suspended high in the air amid an uneven latticework of enormous steel girders, some bent as if by intense fire. The parlor is framed on its sides with rusted and battered mirrors. The pile of rubble looks like the partial remains of a triumphal arch, with a crowning eagle emblem and a bearded head among the bricks. (The statue's head, like the ruin of a Greek god or defeated enemy, suggests both the missing father in the plot as well as the war that destroyed this world.)

On the opposite side is a statue of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by glowing candles. Whenever the massive doors to the back of the parlor open to admit Madame Flora or her clients, we see the bleak outline of a war-ravaged village. Near the end of the opera, as light is projected through the door into the audience, we discover that what had seemed to be stars or flickers of reflected light on the back door are likely bullet holes. The aftermath of the Second World War — the world in which the premiere of The Medium took place in 1946 — is powerfully evoked through this stage design.

Barbara Dever makes a strong entrance as Madame Flora into this crumbling world. Her character, too, is on the verge of collapse; powerfully sung, her depiction of Madame Flora was convincing throughout the first act. Only in act two, with the character's drunken hysteria, did the acting seem less convincing.

Caitlin Lynch as Mrs. Gobineau was marvelous in her first-act narrative of her child's death — the scene was well-executed and genuinely moving. Gregg Mozgala's performance as Toby was particularly effective in his reactions to Madame Flora's threats in act two, although some of the interactions with Jennifer Aylmer as Monica seemed almost parodic in their overstated pantomime. Aylmer, as Monica, distinguished herself with bright, energetic singing and an engaging "Black Swan." Guiding the performance was Menotti expert Joseph Flummerfelt, who directed the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra with precision and vigor.

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