'The Medium' shows struggle with reality, supernatural

The spirits of the living rather than the dead haunt Madame Flora in Sin City Opera’s spooky production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s chamber opera, “The Medium,” which opened on All Saints Day at the Onyx Theatre.

Madame Flora (Baba) is a fake who has no scruple in cheating her gullible and grief-stricken clients in phony séances where she channels their lost children, until she feels a numinous touch while in her phony trance.

Menotti wrote: “This insignificant incident, which she is not able to explain, shatters her self-assurance and drives her almost insane with fear” — she obsessively asks, “Who touched me?”

Baba’s young daughter, Monica, and a mute servant boy, Toby, are forced to aid her in her scam. Menotti wrote that Toby “seems to hide within his silence the answer to her unanswerable question.”

Menotti said: “Monica, in the simplicity of her love both for Toby and Baba, tries to mediate between them. But Baba in her anxiety and insecurity” builds in her murderous rage toward “Toby, ‘the ghost,’ the symbol of her metaphysical anguish, who will always haunt her with the riddle of his immutable silence.”

“Despite its eerie setting and gruesome conclusion, ‘The Medium’ is actually a play of ideas,” Menotti said.

He wrote: “It describes the tragedy of a woman caught between two worlds, a world of reality which she cannot wholly comprehend, and a supernatural world in which she cannot believe.”

Director Renato N. Estacio captures the ambiguity between the two worlds.

While Marisa Johnson as Monica is childlike in her innocence, she is a knowing accomplice in her mother’s con.

Flirting dangerously with Toby’s maturing sexuality, she sings:

“Where, oh, where is my new golden spindle and thread? If I don’t bring them home the King will strike me dead!” Thus spoke the weeping queen to the gnome.

Johnson’s soprano has a lovely musicality, especially in her melancholy lullaby that portends tragedy for Toby, “O black swan, where, oh, where has my lover gone?” She perfectly articulates in voice and character Menotti’s haunting poetry.

Baba warns Monica about Toby: “There is something uncanny about him. He sees things we don’t see.” Russell Ray Slouffman eerily captures this numinosity in Toby’s muteness. He gracefully mimes a young boy’s maturing sexuality and, in his innocence, Slouffman finds the underlying threat.

Estacio’s staging implies that Toby is a trickster, manipulating the boundary between Madame Flora’s phony reality and the all-too-real spiritual world. Slouffman mimes the departure of his spirit from his body more believably than any special effect could do.

If this were a silent film and Stephanie Sadownik had only her eyes, we would still be able to understand all the emotions that she conveys with her magnificent contralto. Her Madame Flora is a monster, yet she opens her soul to show that, “In my young days I have seen many terrible things!”

Sadownik creates a perverse sexual tension between Baba and Toby when she tries to entice him with baubles and with her daughter’s hand in marriage, if only he will say that he touched her in the séance.

Estacio changes the traditional staging at the end of the opera to more powerfully convey this physical force.

Matthew Kirchner and Marcie Ley as Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau and Kim Glover as Mrs. Nolan are excellent as true believers in Madame Flora’s powers. Their comic relief is tempered with the anguish of loss.

Music director Toby McEvoy’s trio of musicians are onstage. McEvoy leads on keyboard with Lindsay Johnson on cello and Bryan Wente on clarinet. Through Menotti’s powerful score, they are the seen but unseen poltergeists possessing this visceral drama.