Many listeners are probably familiar with the name Gian Carlo Menotti largely through his operas ("Amahl and the Night Visitors", "The Medium", "The Consul", "The Saint of Bleecker Street", "The Telephone", etc..). Altogether he composed 25 operas, almost all of them in English. He wrote his own librettos and usually staged his own works. Menotti’s operas continue the Italian lyric tradition epitomized by composers like Puccini, to whom he has often been compared. Menotti wrote quite a bit of instrumental and orchestral music, and this ASV disc is one of the finest surveys.
Gian Carlo Menotti once wrote, "Many contemporary composers seem to fear clarity and directness, perhaps because they are afraid of becoming obvious." It took courage for composers like Menotti and his partner, Samuel Barber, to write tonal music in the mid twentieth century when their peers were experimenting with serial and other musical styles that rejected tonality and lyricism as the essential elements of great music.
The Violin Concerto (1952) is one of Menotti's most popular instrumental works. A virtuoso showpiece of unabashed romanticism, it is a work teeming with operatic largesse and songful plenitude that demonstrates the composer’s ability to integrate lyricism, drama and brilliant orchestration (the first and second movements in particular contain several gorgeous melodies that reflect Menotti’s operatic genius). The concerto's lyric second subject, announced by winds, is tinged with baroque elements very attractively harmonized. The violin then takes up the songful material and embarks on a soaring reverie of superb warmth. The vigorous finale features a jaunty main theme‚ and predictably ends with virtuoso fireworks‚ rounding off a piece that deserves resurrecting not just on disc but in the concert hall too.
The "Cantilena and Scherzo" for Harp and String Quartet is a luminous and melancholically beautiful composition that demonstrates how the addition of the harp to the string quartet creates a richness and depth that makes the work sound near-symphonic. It's an ultra romantic piece, and one that contrasts song with dance in its two short movements.
The two song cycles that conclude this disc are wistfully pensive in nature. Christine Brewer is a great operatic soprano, but the power of her voice doesn’t entirely convey the sensitive nature of these songs. No matter really, they are both beautiful works penned by a composer who made everything 'sing'.
Much of Menotti's professional life was spent in the United States, and he usually spoke of himself as an American composer, despite retaining his Italian citizenship and later moving to an estate of baronial splendor near Edinburgh.
In a musical age in which controversy usually centered on the avant-garde, Mr. Menotti was controversial for his conservatism. Writing of his opera "The Last Savage" in 1964, he said: "To say of a piece that it is harsh, dry, acid and unrelenting is to praise it. While to call it sweet and graceful is to damn it. For better or for worse, in The Last Savage I have dared to do away completely with fashionable dissonance, and in a modest way, I have endeavored to rediscover the nobility of gracefulness and the pleasure of sweetness."
Gian Carlo Menotti was born on July 7th, 1911, in Cadegliano, Italy, a small town near Lake Lugano in Lombardy. He was the sixth of eight children of Alfonso and Ines Menotti, a prosperous merchant family engaged in the coffee business. His mother provided piano, violin and cello lessons for her children, and there were evening musicales in the Menotti household that left a profound impression on Gian Carlo. Menotti began writing songs when he was 5, and by 11 he had written an opera, "The Death of Pierrot", which was performed as a puppet show at home. His second opera, a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s "Little Mermaid", was composed two years later.
In 1924, the family moved to Milan, where the young Mr. Menotti attended the Verdi Conservatory of Music for three years and deepened his interest in opera, often taking in performances at La Scala. He read widely-fairy tales especially-and his growing taste for exoticism, the supernatural and the theatrical was to influence his later work.
At 17, he accompanied his mother to Colombia in her final and futile effort to resurrect the family's collapsing coffee business. On her way back to Italy, in 1928, she sent her son to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Armed with an introductory letter from Arturo Toscanini's wife and a rudimentary command of English, Mr. Menotti began his studies with Rosario Scalero, Curtis's eminent professor of composition. Mr. Scalero found the young man a talent lacking in discipline and set him to a regime of traditional counterpoint and early-music studies. At Curtis, Mr. Menotti began perhaps the decisive partnership of his life-with the American composer Samuel Barber. They lived, traveled and worked together intermittently until Mr. Barber’s death in 1981.
|Gian Carlo Menotti|
Menotti’s first mature opera was begun on a long sojourn in Austria with Samuel Barber after he graduated from Curtis in 1933. It was called "Amelia al Ballo" and incorporated characters and situations that were to reappear in his work-in this case, a frivolous lady's circumventions of a jealous husband. "Amelia" was first given a production in Philadelphia in 1937. In its English version, "Amelia Goes to the Ball" was successful enough at the Metropolitan Opera in New York to win Mr. Menotti a commission for NBC Radio. The work, “The Old Maid and the Thief,” also a one-act, dealt with a spinster’s conspiracy to snare her attractive young lodger. It was first broadcast in 1939 and later reworked for the stage.
His first full-blown opera, "The Island God", failed badly at the Met in 1942, but "The Medium" written in 1946, ran for 211 performances on Broadway the next year with another piece, "The Telephone". "The Medium" was a compendium of the Menotti style-delicate orchestration, lyric writing and often a melodramatic theatricality.
He was also active composing ballets, cantatas, orchestral tone poems, instrumental concertos, songs and chamber music. He also wrote several plays. In one, "The Leper" (1970), he offered a plea for tolerance toward homosexuality.
By 1950, he had finished "The Consul", a tale of political outcasts in Europe pitted against an unresponsive bureaucracy. The Consul ran on Broadway for 269 performances and won both the Drama Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
Mr. Menotti’s 1951 opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors", written for NBC, was perhaps his most popular and successful stage work. "Amahl" was inspired by Bosch's painting "The Adoration of the Magi" and tells of the healing of a crippled boy who offers his crutches as a gift to the infant Jesus.
"The Saint of Bleecker Street", produced on Broadway for the 1954-55 season, carried a theme that preoccupied Mr. Menotti; the tension between mysticism and faith on the one hand, and the cynical "real" world on the other. It did not make money, but critics liked it, and it earned Mr. Menotti his second Pulitzer Prize.
Menotti almost always wrote the words for his operas, and in 1958 he served the same function for Samuel Barber. The opera was Barber's "Vanessa", for which Menotti provided both libretto and stage direction. Soon afterward he wrote librettos for two other operas: Barber's "Hand of Bridge" and "Introductions and Goodbyes" by Lukas Foss.
His own operas kept pouring out, including "Labyrinth" (1963), "The Last Savage" (1963), "Martin’s Lie" (1964), "Help, Help, the Globolinks" (1968), "The Most Important Man" (1971), "The Hero" (1976), "The Egg" (1976) and "The Trial of the Gypsy" (1978).
Menotti lived for many years with Barber in a house known as Capricorn (anyone know Barber's "Capricorn Concerto"? It's a delight..) in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. The house was sold in 1973, and Menotti moved to Yester House, a 16th-century manor in the hills near Edinburgh.
-Either my eyes are going or the font is larger towards the end? Can't seem to correct it.
Enjoy the music everyone