The Medium/The Impresario/ Second Movement, Covent Garden Film Studios, London

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The Independent Culture

Advertisements in opera programmes tend to be for fancy restaurants, high-end holidays, luxury jewellery and private schools. In the programme for Second Movement's Mozart and Menotti double-bill, however, the sole advertisement was for a funeral parlour: not something you want to contemplate on your evening out, perhaps, but highly appropriate in the circumstances.

A mordant tale of repressed sexuality, exploited grief and supernatural fakery, Menotti's two-act opera The Medium is unique in having enjoyed both a long run on Broadway and an Oscar-nominated cinema release. Why? From its tonal simplicity to its modest duration, it is an opera for opera-phobes. Menotti's great gift - and handicap - is that his writing for voice is so naturalistic in its rise and fall that when it is sung as well as it was in this production, one half-forgets it is being sung at all. Unfortunately, this means you are free to focus on the text, and like Barber's Vanessa (1958), for which Menotti also wrote the libretto, The Medium (1946) plays like film noir. The role of Baba - bad mother, lush, hysteric, cynic, and fraudulent medium - seems tailor-made for Joan Crawford, and what was intended as an opera of ideas becomes a lurid melodrama.

In the intimate space of the Covent Garden Film Studios, director Oliver Mears intensified the trash aesthetic by placing the drama in the early 1970s, turning noir into horror. As Baba, Hannah Pedley was an imposing presence: a convincing drunk, hard-faced, half-ashamed, half-proud of her moral vaccuum. As the duped grieving parents Mr and Mrs Gobineau, Simon Thorpe and Jane Harrington gave fuller and more interesting characterisations than Menotti demanded. As mute Toby, Sean Clayton added pathos. Most arresting, however, was Allison Bell's Monica: a startling portrait of a girl just old enough to use her sexuality as a weapon from a cool, clear, naturally bright soprano.

Michael Flexer's reworking of The Impresario - an odd companion piece for the Menotti - was wittily scripted and well-directed but over-long. In-jokes about arts funding, directorial pretensions and singers' neuroses jostled for space with a satirical plot-line of the sort you might hear in sketch-format on Radio 4's The Now Show, an amusingly accurate parody of Ligeti, and a well-observed impersonation of Martine McCutcheon from Margaret Rapacioli. Ha ha, I thought. But show me a prima donna who reads Brecht in her down-time and turns up for rehearsals in a leotard and I'll eat my hat. Mozart's trios - the loveliness of which I had quite forgotten - played second fiddle to the satire.

In any young opera company there are teething problems. Conductor Nicholas Chalmers has to learn how to "catch" his singers when they drag behind his beat. Bell needs to temper her ping in a small space, and Rapacioli and Pedley lost control of their vibrato at moments of tension. That said, the playing of the chamber orchestra was stylish and well-drilled in both operas and the acting was excellent. Like Tête á Tête and the conservatoires, Second Movement prove that some of the most interesting opera can be found on the fringe.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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