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By Phil Hall | August 28, 2004

Gian-Carlo Menotti’s 1951 film adaptation of his celebrated opera “The Medium” never achieved classic status and has only rarely been revived. One would like to think this was an overlooked treasure, but seeing it in a new DVD release only serves to confirm why the film has languished in obscurity for so long.

The eponymous medium is one Madame Flora, a phony spiritualist who preys on naive and distraught people who attend her seances with the hope of communicating with their dead children. At one seance, something goes wrong (or right, depending how you view it). After creating fraudulent communications with two deceased children, Madame Flora is visited by a genuine spirit from beyond. Shocked by this unexpected contact, she becomes ashamed of the chicanery she had been pulling and sinks into despair and frustration. The result of her emotional downfall resonates badly on her two accomplices in deception: her beleaguered teenage daughter and a hunky but mute Gypsy boy who lives with them (and who seems to have problems keeping his shirt on his muscular physique). They cannot understand her breakdown and suffer the consequences of her newly found guilty conscience.

Menotti directed “The Medium” in the Italian neo-realist style that was popular in the early 1950s (the English-language production was filmed in Rome). Yet the gritty neo-realist approach is conceptually at odds with the protocols of opera, which is anything but neo-realist. And truth be told, Menotti failed to maintain the level of psychological suspense and visual angst required to bring the harrowing emotional drama to the cinematic medium. The production looks cheap and shabby and the black-and-white cinematography is never effectively employed to plumb the shadows of the characters and their weird lives.

Further complicating matters were the performances of the great contralto Marie Powers as Madame Flora (in her only film performance) and a very young Anna Maria Alberghetti (in her film debut) as her daughter. Whatever fury Powers possessed on stage is lost here – she either did not have the dramatic heft or was not given proper direction to bring Madame Flora’s turmoil to life. As for Alberghetti, she was very pretty and charming and sang like a dream – but she could not act and her presence in this film was monotonous. As the Gypsy boy, the handsome Leo Coleman offered a striking visual presence but shamelessly overdid the pantomime of his character – it is easy to see why Menotti tried to distract audiences from his limited acting by keeping him bare chested or shirtless for much of the film.

Opera lovers will happily drink in Menotti’s sublime music. But perhaps it is better to buy a CD soundtrack or to seek out a live performance of “The Medium” than to experience this uneven movie misfire.

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