Grant Park Music Festival offers lively performance of Menotti comic opera

Thu Aug 16, 2018 at 10:36 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief” was performed Wednesday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.

If you are of a certain generation, the name Gian Carlo Menotti may conjure Christmas. His Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first American television opera, was a yuletide mainstay for decades. 

But odds are that you haven’t heard of The Old Maid and the Thief, Menotti’s first English-language opera. Wednesday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion was your chance to hear this 1939 curiosity, courtesy of the Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center, as part of the final week of the Grant Park Music Festival.

And curious it is indeed. Just as Amahl was written for television, The Old Maid and the Thief was written for radio. Accordingly, in addition to four singers and a small orchestra, the one-act opera also requires a soap-style narrator and a variety of sound effects—for knocking on doors, shattering glass, dropping trays, etc.

The title old maid, Miss Todd, lives a lonely existence with only her servant, Laetitia, and her busybody neighbor, Miss Pinkerton, as company. One day, a vagrant, Bob, arrives on her doorstep. Miss Todd and Laetitia are instantly smitten with him and take him in. Then, they get word that an escaped convict is on the loose, and the police description suspiciously matches Bob. Hoping to assuage what they assume to be the vagrant’s urge to steal, Miss Todd and Laetitia go on a theft spree of their own to fund a ready supply of cash for Bob, until things get wildly out of hand.

All of this talk of theft may make the plot sound more high-stakes than it is. In fact, the humor of the piece comes from the the outsize, melodramatic music (Puccini with a pinch of Tom & Jerry) and the intentionally overwrought libretto (by Menotti). Every petty squabble is treated as a cataclysm. Something as simple as Bob’s breakfast in bed is heralded with fanfares owed to a Siegfried.

Consequently, the only way to sell this comic opera is to oversell it—to go wildly over top. Thankfully, the four young singers were willing to do this. And even more thankfully, all four have excellent voices.

Soprano Ann Toomey got the best role of the opera, Laetitia—part of opera’s long tradition of saucy maids, as with Despina in Cosi fan tutte. Toomey’s emotional range was splendid. She captured all of Laetitia’s flirtatiousness, slyness, and indignation.

She also got to sing the opera’s single hit aria, “Steal Me, Sweet Thief.” It is one of the opera’s few spells of sincere emotion, and all of the character’s yearning poured out in Toomey’s rendition.

The opera’s other touching aria is Bob’s “When the Air Sings of Summer.” Baritone Christopher Kenney sang not only with warm expansiveness, but with nobility, in the best performance of the night. This dignity was crucial to making Bob believable as someone whom the ladies would instantly fall in love with as well as trust.

Miss Todd is more of a comic foil in the proceedings. But contralto Lauren Decker played up her prim hypocrisy to good humorous effect, and managed to convey the character’s constant panic without ever letting her timbre turn unduly shrill.

Soprano Whitney Morrison was perhaps the most accomplished over-actor, as Miss Pinkerton, delivering every bit of bad news as if the world were ending and viciously delighting in Miss Todd’s downfall, all the while maintaining a solid tone.

Former news anchor— and longtime Grant Park Music Festival supporter— Ron Magers was cast as the narrator. The aim was clear: how better to evoke the sound of old-timey radio than with the voice of an actual broadcaster? But Magers sounded a bit out of his element—speaking as if reporting headlines, rather than describing the stage actions.

Although this is a radio opera and everyone was in formal attire rather than costume, the concert performance was artfully staged by director Julia Faulkner. The farce of Miss Todd and Laetitia’s botched robbery and Bob’s drunken revelry were particularly well done.

Much credit for the performance’s keen sense of Menotti’s idiom must go to Carlos Kalmar, artistic director and principal conductor of the Grant Park Orchestra. Kalmar did equal justice to the opera’s grandiose moments as well as its cartoonish elements. Under his direction, the Grant Park musicians brought out all of the delicious details in Menotti’s lively orchestration.

The Grant Park Festival’s final season program takes place 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion with Dvorak’s The Water Goblin and Orff’s Carmina Burana.

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