Menotti wrote his operatic riddle The Egg in 1976 for the National Cathedral. It has received few subsequent productions, and this recording documents one of them, by the William Ferris Chorale in 1981, on the occasion of the composer's 70th birthday. The Egg is the second of Menotti's church operas, the first being Martin's Lie, written in 1964. Set in the fifth century, the opera centers on Manuel, the nephew of St. Simeon Stylites. St. Simeon gives him an egg, which if opened will reveal the meaning of life. The bulk of the action takes place in the court of the Empress of Byzantium, where she and the members of her court, who personify the seven deadly sins, each fail to open the egg. Manuel gives the egg to a beggar who easily breaks it to feed her starving son. The Empress is enraged and orders him killed, but he is saved through the intervention of St. Simeon.
The Egg suffers from a lack of a clear dramatic point of view. It's not so much a human drama as a morality play whose essential point is didactic: the meaning of life is to be found by giving away your treasure. The opera is too philosophical and has too little action to be aimed at children, as most of Menotti's other late chamber operas are. The dialogue is full of broad and gratuitous humor (set to music that fails to support the humor of the text) that seems at odds with the seriousness of the subject. It's difficult to accept the opera as a comedy, despite its jokey tone; the gruesome tortures to which the Empress condemns her various subjects, as well as a supposedly hilarious dismemberment, are genuinely disturbing. The vocal writing, which is primarily recitative and only rarely rises to the level of arioso, lacks the remarkable melodic inventiveness that characterized Menotti's work from Amelia al Ballo through The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore. The composer's extraordinary instincts as a musical dramatist are little evident here; the music fails to shine a spotlight on the deep psychology of the story, as it consistently does in his best work, and only superficially illustrates the drama onstage.
William Ferris leads the Chicago-based William Ferris Chorale, the Composer Festival Orchestra, and a group of talented soloists in a committed performance. The chorus, which has a large role, sings with clear tone, conviction, and energy. Thomas Sillitti as Manuel, John Vorrasi as St. Simeon, and especially Joan Gibbons as the Empress, are fully invested in their roles and sing with passion and dramatic intensity. The recording, made at a live performance, has some stage and audience noise, but is generally clear and vivid.