Before I saw Central City Opera's The Saint of Bleecker Street, my knowledge of Gian Carlo Menotti was confined to the Christmas classic Amahl and the Night Visitors and his short ballet The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore, about a poet and the three mythical animals that represent different stages of the poet's creative life. I loved The Unicorn, and played it over and over again. It didn't hurt that I was young when I first heard it, and the music spoke directly to my tremulous aspirations for a life in the theater, or that the lovely passage addressed to the Unicorn — "Beware of the virgin sleeping under the lemon tree, her hair adrift among the clover" — was associated with the gorgeous medieval unicorn tapestries I had seen at the Cloisters in New York. Many years later, the score played through my mind again on my first visit to Spoleto, home of Menotti's summer arts festival. It was easy to imagine mythical animals pacing the town's steep, narrow streets and roaming the surrounding hills. Menotti died earlier this year, at the age of 95.
Admittedly, Amahl and Unicorn are easy and accessible pieces, and I knew Bleecker Street would be more complex and harder to grasp. Still, I expected a blissful evening. I was not put off by the plot, which concerns a young woman whose religious visions galvanize her Italian community in New York's West Village and her brother's skeptical response. I assumed that in 1954, when Menotti wrote the opera, American Catholicism was open-hearted, a fount of mystically charged imagery, and hadn't yet joined hands with the reductive forces of today's religious right.
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And yet, I disliked Bleecker Street. Viscerally. By the end, as the sainted Annina breathed her last, I found myself wriggling in my seat, wondering if the woman was ever going to die. The man sitting next to me, who'd once sung in a Christmas production of Amahl, had vanished during the first intermission, along with a few other members of the audience.
I lack the musical sophistication to analyze the score. Perhaps it contains many delights for true aficionados. But to me, the sound was jangling, teasing and unpleasant. A few notes seemed to promise melody that never came. The passages of recitative — one went something like "What time is it?" "Seven o'clock" — were downright comical. As ever in this venue, the singing was first-rate: Christina Martos as Annina, Derek Taylor as her brother Michele, Philip Cokorinos as the priest Don Marco and Christine Brandes as a neighbor. Kirstin Chavez was electrifying as Michele's sexy and ill-fated lover, Desideria. But all I could think about was how much I'd like to hear these people singing something else.
The Saint of Bleecker Street
Presented by Central City Opera through August 18, Central City Opera House, 303-292-6700, www.centralcityopera.org
Religious literature is filled with stories of young girls who hear voices and receive stigmata, and the question of whether these phenomena mark them as saints or hysterics is a fascinating one. It's generally believed that Menotti intended Annina and Michele to represent two sides of his own psyche. But his libretto has neither the subtlety nor the ambiguity needed to explore ideas like this. The characters are entirely one-dimensional, Annina purely and simply good, Michele one of those stereotypical moody rebellious 1950s types (appropriately leather-jacketed here). We think at first that Michele's anger is fueled by what he sees as the church's exploitation of his sister, which would make for an interesting plot, but eventually learn that he has incestuous feelings for her, a development that adds melodrama and muddies the water without adding any richness to the theme.
Usually, I drive down the mountain after an evening at Central City Opera filled with joy, but The Saint of Bleecker Street left me as jagged and irritable as the Poet's Manticore, with his quilled back and diet of bitter herbs.