The modest new revival of Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-hour, two-act 1946 opera The Medium occupies a queer middle zone between serious musical drama and camp. Audiences may well expect a heavy dose of the latter, given that the lead role of Madame Flora—a tippling con artist who comes to believe that the séance fictions she is selling might be true—is performed by Jeffery Roberson, better known as his sweetly trashy drag alter ego, Varla Jean Merman. Snatches of the Varla Jean persona do pop up occasionally: when Flora makes her entrance clutching a Piggly Wiggly grocery bag, for instance, or swigs amusingly from a bottle of Jack Daniels. And the pastel colors and skewed angles of Michael Steers’s set (not to mention the fluorescent faces and drippings that appear on the walls when Flora makes contact with the dead) place this Southern-gothic story in a Pee-wee’s Playhouse world.
For the most part, however, Donna Drake’s production takes a surprisingly straight approach, and under Elizabeth Hastings’s musical direction, most of the cast handles Menotti’s haunting score with skill. Soprano Stefanie Izzo brings a gorgeously rich and full sound to the part of Monica, Flora’s daughter and partner in deception, who acts out revealing romantic power games with Toby, their mute, violin-playing Gypsy whipping boy. (He is played by Edmund Bagnell of the pulchritudinous gay string quartet Well-Strung, which runs in rep with The Medium.) But although Roberson is the production’s raison d’être and charismatic center, his big frame and big hair are not matched by the size of his vocals. Singing the role of Flora in its original key, without amplification, is an impressive stunt for a male actor, but the relative thinness of Roberson’s voice detracts from his impact; by the time he reaches his main aria at the end of the second act, he sounds audibly tired. It is possible to imagine a version of The Medium that takes Menotti’s piece completely seriously or one that spoofs it thoroughly, or even one that teases out a latent inclination toward camp in the work itself. This production, though enjoyable, does none of those things, and winds up neither here nor there.—Adam Feldman
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