A Spirited Double Bill: 'The Medium' and 'Emilie' from Spoleto USA

The Stories of "Émilie" and "The Medium"


Kaija Saariaho's opera features a libretto by Amin Maalouf, verses that are mainly in French but also include a few passages in English. The drama's single character is based on the real life, historical figure Émilie du Chatelet. She was a scholar and writer, and had a close friendship with the philosopher Voltaire.

At the time portrayed in the opera, Émilie in love with the poet Saint-Lambert, and is carrying his child. She's also in the finishing stages of her life's work, a commentary on and translation of Isaac Newton's Principles of Mathematics.

The opera has nine scenes. In the first one, Émilie has forebodings of death, while also acknowledging that "forebodings can lie." Writing to Saint-Lambert, she goes on to say, "I still have the heart to live … to write," and "to love you with ferocity. I have never learned to love otherwise."

Others scenes are called "Voltaire"; "Beams of Light," in which she talks about scientific theories; and "Fire," in which she discusses both science, and passion -- themes which she often combines. There's a scene called "Meeting," in which Émilie again writes to her lover, saying, "But as soon as the sun of passion arose, my beautiful philosophy melted like frost." There's also a moving sequence called "The Child," in which Émilie recalls her father, and offers advice to the child she's bearing.

In the final scene, called "Against Oblivion," Émilie speaks both to herself, and to the others in her life, including her unborn child. Near the end, she says, "I already miss the colors ... and the dreams," then concludes the opera with the words, "And I fear to sink, with book and child, into the vertigo of unconsciousness … in the well of oblivion."

Tragically, much of that fear came true. Émilie du Chatelet's translation of Newton remains her most famous work. But she died shortly after giving birth, at the age of 42, and her child died in infancy.

WOO-1204-Emilie-The-Medium-300-2The Medium:

The two brief acts of Menotti's opera are set in the home of Madame Flora -- a woman who makes her living by pretending to be a psychic, in contact with the spirits of the dead, and her living room is set up to accommodate phony séances. Madame Flora is assisted in this by her daughter Monica -- who calls her mother Baba -- and by a Toby, a mute servant boy Madame Flora took in off the street. During séances, Monica sometimes appears in the shadows, playing the roles of ghosts. At the back of the room are panels in front of a sort of trick window, in which so-called "spirits" can be made to appear.

As ACT ONE opens, Toby is playing with costumes, while Monica sings a spinning song. Madame Flora soon arrives and scolds the two, who are supposed to be preparing for a séance. Before long three guests arrive.

Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau are regular customers. They rely on Madame Flora to keep in spiritual touch with their son, who died when he was only two. The third guest is a new client, Mrs. Nolan. She hopes to contact her late daughter, Doodly. The séance begins, with Monica imitating the cries of the Gobineau's baby son, and then singing to Mrs. Nolan, who is convinced that she's hearing the voice of her daughter.

But suddenly, as Madame Flora presides over the mysterious spectacle, she feels a cold hand at her throat. That's not in the script, and it terrifies her. She abruptly halts the séance, and demands to know whose hand she felt. When nobody knows what she's talking about, Madame Flora is even more afraid, and tells the guests to leave.

At first, Madame Flora accuses Toby of touching her. Unable to speak, to defend himself, he's frightened by her anger. Monica tells her mother that she must have been imagining things -- Flora has been known to drink too much. But Madame Flora insists that the touch was real, and also hears a mysterious voice.

Monica then tries to comfort her mother, and sings the opera's best-known tune, "The Black Swan Song." But Madame Flora is still fearful, and begins to pray as the act ends.

As ACT TWO begins, Madame Flora has gone out, and Monica sings and dances for Toby. She imagines that Toby is in love with her, and sings both sides of a gentle, romantic encounter.

WOO-1204-Emilie-The-Medium-300-1Madame Flora then comes home, clutching a bottle and clearly drunk. She's still disturbed by the mysterious episode at the last séance, and thinks that Toby was either responsible for it, or somehow saw what actually happened. As always, Toby is unable to speak, and he runs from her. But Madame Flora seizes Toby and strikes him, threatening to continue beating him until he reveals the truth.

Then there's a knock at the door, and they all realize they've forgotten that the Gobineaus and Mrs. Nolan are scheduled to arrive. The three are ushered in, but instead of beginning a séance, Madame Flora throws money on the table.

"This is yours," she tells the three guests. Then she confesses that she's been deceiving them all along. But her clients refuse to believe it. They prefer to think they've actually contacted their dead loved ones. Flora calls them fools, and throws them out.

She then turns on Toby again, and he runs from the house in terror. Monica flees into her bedroom, and Madame Flora quickly locks her in. Alone, Madame Flora remembers terrible things she saw when she was young, and begs to be forgiven for her sins. She continues to drink, and eventually passes out on the couch. Toby sneaks back in, finds the keys to Monica's room, and tries to let her out. But he fumbles the key ring, and Madame Flora wakes up.

Toby runs to the back of the room, behind the sliding panels. Flora didn't see him when he entered, but now she realizes that someone, or some thing, is back there. She gets a pistol, and fires into the dark, crying, "I've killed the ghost!" Toby staggers out and falls. He dies in Madame Flora's arms, and Monica screams for help as the opera ends.