Part Twilight Zone and part Puccini, Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Medium is a camp classic, and I mean it no disrespect by describing it that way. This film version was made in Italy in 1950, just four years after the opera was staged in New York City, and it features the original Baba, the great Marie Powers, whose eccentricities included roller-skating to performances. (Beverly Dame also was part of the New York cast.)
In brief, the plot concerns Baba, who, as "Madame Flora," conducts bogus séances with her daughter Monica and a gypsy deaf-mute named Toby to extract money from bereaved parents. At a séance, she feels a pair of hands on her throat and panics. Has the spirit world come to punish her, or was it merely Toby, whom she treats abusively? Unable to get an answer this question, she retreats to the bottle. At the end of the opera, startled from her stupor, she shoots the banished Toby, mistaking him for ghost. "Was it you?" she rasps over his dead body.
The staged opera is about an hour long, and both acts take place in Baba's flat. For the movie, the action has been opened up slightly, adding twenty minutes in length. The added scenes include a visit from Baba to Mrs. Nolan's home, and Monica and Toby searching at a carnival and in the city streets for Baba. Musically, nothing important happens in any of these new scenes, but I can understand why they were added, and they don't bother me too much. However, the first act is chopped up too much in the film, and the "Song of the Black Swan," such an effective Act One finale, is weakened by having the long search for Baba delay it. One laughably over-the-top addition is a scene in which Baba drips molten candle wax on Toby's bare chest to determine if he is feigning sleep or not. It reminds me of both an S-and-M party and an advertisement for electrolysis.
Marie Powers, who resembles Shirley Booth costumed as a bedraggled black crow, is an amazing Baba. Her contralto voice sends shivers down the spine, and as an actress, she holds nothing back. Anna-Maria Alberghetti must have been a teenager when she made this film. She is authentically girlish and charming in every way, although her diction is not perfect (there's a hint of an Italian accent), and her rudimentary lip-syncing skills occasionally result in beautiful sounds coming out closed lips! As Toby, Leo Coleman has a dancer's body, but some of his expressions are unfortunately reminiscent of Harpo Marx's, and his North African features make it unlikely that Baba found him starving on the streets of Budapest, as Menotti's libretto tells us. He is not even given credit on VAI's box, although his name appears on the DVD itself, as well as in the film. The three parents are touching, and Schippers's conducting is electrifying – the best this opera has known.
The murky, sometimes confused cinematography reminds me of early German Expressionism, although I suspect this has more to do with inexperience on the film-makers' part – technically, this is not a very assured movie - than with a conscious artistic choice. Anyway, it's appropriate for the subject matter. Visually, the DVD transfer seems pretty good. The monaural sound is good too, but there are obvious splices and variations within the source material. (The sound engineer is C. Robert Fine, who later became associated with the audiophile Mercury LP label.)
VAI offers the soundtrack to this film on CD, but it would be sad not to see The Medium for the completely outrageous experience that it is. It is a great opera, and it achieves its greatness in no small measure by being completely devoid of shame, an achievement all the more apparent on this DVD. Warmly recommended!
Copyright © 2002, Raymond Tuttle