The excitement in the air was palpable Friday night at the opening performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium” at Wildwood. In the lobby you could hear people talk: “This is the first production without Ann Chotard” (Chotard recently retired as Exectutive Director after serving many years at Wildwood). “[The Rep’s] Cliff Baker’s directing, you know.” There were also about twice as many musicians in the pit than usual. All this combined with Menotti’s obscurity beyond the family opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” meant no one knew what to expect.
The performance was certainly something that this reviewer had never seen at Wildwood. The set, with all its dilapidated antiques and gypsy magic props, was more intricate compared with ones in the past. The music was eerie, alternating between ethereal and nightmarish, played expertly by the musicians under the direction of Stratsimir Pavlov.
The performers were varied in their portrayals of their characters. The first appearance of the medium, played by Nisheedah Golden, showed great promise — she was a strong, tall, dark figure who sang with an arresting voice. However, over the course of the opera, her facial expressions didn’t seem to match either the lyrics or the music she sang. Despite the title of the opera, the medium’s daughter, played by Jennifer Holbrook, did the majority of the singing. With a voice that excelled in the high ranges, Holbrook was not only convincing as an innocent young lady, but she also altered her voice to become the spectre of another woman’s dead daughter. Toby, a mute boy played by Jeremy Matthey, came off as a somewhat odd and flamboyant character in a cast of more somber roles. Elizabeth Jackson, a regular at Wildwood, was compelling as Mrs. Gobineau. Her solo telling of the death of her baby son was truly moving. She, Gerald Yarbry and Kerry Ponder all personified the sense of grief and anguish that was so prevalent in the opera’s story.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the performance, however, was revealed by our companion. “It wasn’t a park-and-bark,” she said. The singers moved, interacted with each other, and weren’t afraid to use and own the space, probably thanks to Baker, accustomed to directing actors on the stage. This is not common in many opera productions across the country, and we’re glad Arkansas’s own Wildwood had the artistic sensibility to encourage the singers to become actors as well. If this is the beginning of the “new” Wildwood, there is the promise of many fine and challenging performances to come.