The attribute ‘felix’ is a cognomen, or nickname, which can mean both “lucky / successful” and “happy”. In human history only a privileged few seem to have possessed such quality. For them life flows like a placid river which generously spreads its benefic influxes over common people bent along its banks. Among composers, Mendelssohn Bartholdy (Felix not by chance) was certainly one of them. His human and artistic qualities and achievements, after all, were a bit troubled only during the last year of his short but intense life.
Gian Carlo Menotti was equally lucky, successful and happy. He was a child prodigy in very wealthy family, thanks to his father Alfonso’s coffee import/export business with Colombia. The dominant figure, though, was his mother (Ines Pellini), amateur pianist, who clearly understood that the sixth of her many children had extraordinary talent. Young Gian Carlo, in fact, was showing how the Goddess of Fortune had been extremely generous with him. His melodic and composing ability is comparable to Mozart’s or, to remain within contemporary Italy, to Nino Rota’s. Menotti and Rota were born in the same year and they both trained overseas. At five years of age Gian Carlo studies pianoforte, at seven he writes songs, at eleven he composes his first opera: The death of Pierrot (for which he also writes the libretto. He continued to write the workbooks for his operas even as a mature composer). At fourteen he releases his second: The little Mermaid (from Andersen). The crisis of the family coffee-business, and then his father’s death, give the young composer the opportunity to cross the Atlantic. After a few years at the Conservatory of Milan Gian Carlo and his mother move to Pennsylvania. There he attends the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music of Philadelphia (thanks to the influent recommendation of Arturo Toscanini, a family friend), where he graduates with honors (ça va sans dire). Menotti and Toscanini have many traits in common: their unbelievable success in the U.S. (certainly much greater than at home), their denial of Fascism, their music management and training activities, their international approach and their openness to young talents.
Since Gian Carlo Menotti had started attending the Curtis Institute, he enjoyed an incredible series of musical, institutional and personal successes. Let’s start briefly from his latter, then we’ll analyze his early works and the titles presented in this recording in particular. The naturalized American composer (who never gave up his Italian citizenship) had a dazzling career, spangled with countless prizes and awards coming both from artistic and institutional establishments. The list is impressive. He won two Pulitzers (one for the thrilling opera ‘The Consul’, which we’ll review below, and the other for The Saint of Bleeker Street, of 1955, in which New York’s Little Italy is portrayed); the Guggenheim; the American Academy of Arts (1945); The Italian Music Award; The Kennedy Center Honor; the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award. Musical America nominated him Musician of the Year. The list continues: he is nominated Knight Grand Cross, Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (1981), he’s awarded the Gold Medal for the Meritorious in Culture and the Arts (1992). Awards aside, however, Menotti is known in Italy mainly as the founder of the Festival of the Two Worlds in 1958 (“the biggest mistake of my life” as he used to repeat half seriously at every new edition) and, almost twenty years later, of the American version of the festival, the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, as well as the Australian edition in Melbourne.
The Festival, which he personally directed for half a century amid quarrels and contentions, was unique in the Italy of the economic boom and even later on. Set in the beautiful yet unenhanced Umbria town of those days, it was meant as a bridge across the two continents and soon became one of the most important artistic/cultural events in the world. Spoleto, in fact, is visited by over half a million people each year. The event is a chance for a cosmopolitan and educated public to evaluate the evolution of the most important forms of art (theater, opera, dance, figurative art, cinema and, obviously, music).
Spoleto presents not only new productions but also masterpieces unfairly forgotten. As we all know, the Festival still exists today. This year (2014), it has reached its 57th edition. As for Menotti’s abundant production, it can be said that his most prolific decades were the ’40’s and the ’50’s and that his most frequented genre was the opera, which he undoubtedly contributed to innovate dramatically, if not in the musical language certainly in concept and popularity. It was at the Curtis Institute, where he had met Samuel Barber (who became his life companion, and for whom he wrote the libretti for two of his operas: Vanessa and A Hand of Bridge), that Menotti composed (music and libretto) his first Opera: Amelia al Ballo (Amelia at the Ball), text in Italian (also The Island God and The Last Savage are in Italian. All the others, instead, are in English).
After the ballet ‘Sebastian’ and the noteworthy Concert for pianoforte and orchestra, of 1944 e ’45 respectively, the composer revisits the opera with The Medium and The telephone où l’Amour à trois (comic opera in a single act for soprano and baritone, presented in this CD). The operas were performed together at New York’s Heckscer Theater in 1947, and re-acted in Broadway for many months. They received positive reviews since their debut and after Toscanini, invited by Menotti who had leaked the news to the press, personally attended one of the performances the show was sold out. The protagonist is Lucy (soprano): a woman of the jet set (an environment well known by the composer who was a member of the high society. His New York house, nicknamed Capricorn after his friend Barber’s homonymic concert, hosted many parties). Her friend Ben (baritone) visits Lucy in order to ask her hand in marriage before going on a trip: but every time he tries, she engages in a never-ending series of phone calls. Ben is furious and resorts to cutting the phone cable, but he fails. He must catch his train and has to leave without being able to propose. No worries: it’s a comic opera and Americans love happy endings. Ben finally succeeds in declaring his love from a phone booth and the two protagonists perform a romantic duet on the phone.
From the end of the 1930’s until the early ‘90’s Menotti wrote about thirty operas. The longest and most challenging was certainly The Consul, which premiered in 1950 and granted him his first Pulitzer (in order to receive it he found a loophole becoming an American citizen for just one day, as he didn’t want to give up his Italian citizenship), and the Time’s cover page. The following year he presented the Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, written for the television. It was a great success (it was aired by NBC for 16 years and in 1971 it became the most performed opera in the United States).
The composer was greatly inspired by the theme of childhood. Such theme is present, although in a minor way, even in Poemetti: 12 pezzi pianistici per bambini (12 piano pieces for children) of 1937 and, eventually, in Lullaby for Alexander , also for pianoforte (1978). Apart from his opera production, which was his main contribution to music and to American culture, another genre which Menotti tried with enthusiasm was that of the great symphonic and choral compositions, as Landscapes and Remembrances of 1976 – written for the U.S. Bicentennial; The death of the bishop of Brindisi, for solos, choir and orchestra (1963); Apocalypse, of ’51, full of Respighian recollections; the great symphony The Halcyon, of ‘76 (the premiere was directed by Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia); some concerts (the aforementioned Concerto per pianoforte of 1945; that for violin of ’52; for cello of ’75; one for contrabass of’83; a Triple Concert of ’70).
The sacred repertoire is also relevant in the composer’s catalog. A precious gem is the Mass for the Contemporary English Liturgy, commissioned by the catholic dioceses of Baltimore. His chamber repertoire is, instead, quite limited but it includes a little masterpiece: the Trio for violin, clarinet and pianoforte (1996). It is undoubtedly a rare formation used mostly during the last century (remember homonymous Khaciaturian’s and Krenek’s works ) compared to the more popular formation for viola, whose peculiar tone had inspired some masterpieces in the past, as Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, or Schumann’s Märchenbilder; and a late opera (Menotti composed it when he was over 80 years old) which could be defined his farewell work, weren’t it so surprisingly fresh. It seems created by a young composer enthusiastic to tread on previously unchartered ground.