Gian-Carlo Menotti remains a strangely invulnerable musical force from beyond the grave - despite the odds against him.
In the centennial of his birth, the composer who created populist opera is being celebrated in Princeton with Opera New Jersey's production of The Consul, which opened Saturday; on disc with a spate of long-unavailable recording reissues on the Naxos label (in deluxe remasterings by Philadelphia's Mark Obert-Thorn); and at the Curtis Institute of Music, his alma mater, with a memorabilia exhibition documenting the operas he wrote for radio, TV, and Broadway.
Though not the most respected composer to graduate from Curtis, Menotti had glamour, as evidenced in the large portrait that hangs at the school, immortalizing the dashing good looks he maintained into old age - long after the world had seen the monster that sometimes lurked beneath.
The Menotti who could burn bridges nearly as fast as he crossed them was also opera's greatest benefactor in postwar America. Amahl and the Night Visitors, the hour-long opera about a crippled boy who offers his crutch to the Christ child, premiered on live TV in 1959 and wasn't only a Christmas perennial for years, but also a staple of student and community theater.
Menotti's brand of opera - linear plotlines, Puccinian harmony, and lots of exterior action - is fashionable again and lives in the works of Jake Heggie and Mark Adamo. In fact, Stephen Schwartz's recent Seance on a Wet Afternoon should have taken cues from Menotti's The Medium, which confronts the paranormal far more succinctly.
Nonetheless, Menotti's reputation hasn't kept pace with that of Samuel Barber, whom Menotti met when both were Curtis students. Though two of Menotti's Broadway operas won the Pulitzer Prize - The Consul, about postwar secret police and implacable bureaucracy, and The Saint of Bleecker Street, about a modern-day girl's stigmata - the composer's achievements are strangely tainted.
When Menotti died in 2007 at age 95, more than half his operas were considered failures. He hadn't known a clear-cut success since the mid-1950s. The world pretended not to notice, as Menotti maintained a high public profile founding and running the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Italy and Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. After seeing a lavish documentary on Menotti in the early '90s, I asked the filmmakers if they realized how much the composer was resting on his laurels. The reply: "The big picture is good."
Menotti still received opera commissions, though Beverly Sills had to lock him in a hotel room to make him complete the 1979 La Loca. Placido Domingo walked into rehearsals for 1986's Goya saying it was Menotti's best - an opinion shared by no one.
When Menotti and Barber ended their domestic relationship in the 1960s, Barber retreated to Italy and developed a drinking problem, while the seemingly unwounded Menotti purchased a huge estate in Scotland for his adopted son, Chip. Yet Menotti wasn't necessarily living the good life: In middle age, Barber was no picnic; Amahl royalties faded because so many productions were by amateur companies; the Scottish place was such a money pit that he had to work incessantly as a stage director to maintain it, yielding a memorable Queen of Spades for the Opera Company of Philadelphia in 1983.
Was Menotti too distracted to compose well? Or were the arts festivals his way of staying in the game when his composing resources were diminishing? Once, in the 1990s when Menotti had accepted a new commission, I asked him the usual composer question of what new territory he might cover. He laughed sardonically and said there was no new territory. So he knew.
His loyalties didn't serve him well. He became convinced that leadership of Spoleto Festival USA should be handed down to his son, who by then had married and started a family. When offered a six-figure retirement annuity instead, Menotti got out the wrecking ball, excoriating the festival's board in front of the national press. When the festival's publicist was apparently slipping into AIDS-related dementia and verbally abused the very contacts the festival needed to attract, Menotti wouldn't fire him.
Those who were mauled by Menotti still occupy key positions in the U.S. music world - one reason, perhaps, why his centennial feels muted. Nonetheless, his little-known Violin Concerto has been taken up by the young violinist Jennifer Koh, and it's a fine, mid-weight work. The Naxos recordings (some of which aren't officially issued in the United States but can be downloaded at www.qobuz.com) mostly document the original casts of his best works, from the 1937 Amelia Goes to the Ball to the 1958 Maria Golovin. Menotti assembled high-personality teams, from contralto Marie Powers to conductor Thomas Schippers, that say much about what his operas are - and are not.
Though Menotti came out of the world of Italian grand opera, his works can seem insubstantial when writ that large. When The Medium was presented in the Academy of Music in 1986 (not under his direction), it died for lack of claustrophobic tension. Even sweet little Amahl can seem like a brat when playing to the rear gallery. Menotti's works were composed for intimate circumstances - cameras, microphones, and the Broadway stage - and regain their power when revisited as such.
Listening to those old recordings, you know you're being manipulated. The Consul has a dying baby. Amahl is about a cheerful cripple. The Medium has an orphaned gypsy with his tongue cut out. And the underrated Maria Golovin's blind war veteran is in love with a beautiful woman. Fight the forces of pathos if you will - in the right setting, Menotti still gets you in the end.