Arts & Events

Menotti’s THE CONSUL: An Opera Trump Should Be Required to See

Reviewed by James MacBean
Sunday July 23, 2017 - 12:29:00 PM

Berkeley Chamber Opera’s Artistic Director, Eliza O’Malley, followed up on the outstanding achievement of her company’s production last December of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi with what seemed at first glance an odd choice for the company’s next production – Gian-Carlo Menotti’s 1950 opera The Consul. Menotti, an American-born composer of Italian origin, is hardly in the same league as Vincenzo Bellini. Menotti’s chamber operas The Medium (1946) and The Telephone (1947), and his television Christmas opera Ahmal and the Night Visitors (1951) have always remained marginal curiosities in the operatic world. Though I’ve seen these works, they never made much of an impression on me. Gian-Carlo Menotti’s main claim to fame, it seemed, was as founding director in 1958 of the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds, which he later took to Charleston, South Carolina.

However, as staged by Berkeley Chamber Opera in two performances at Berkeley’s Hillside Club on July 14 & 16, Menotti’s The Consul was a revelation. Here is a serious opera written in a post-Puccini verismo style, full of angular, often dissonant music that alternates with occasional soliloquies and duets of a poignant lyricism. The plot revolves around a topic that is in the forefront of news today in Donald Trump’s USA – the fate of political refugees. Set in a fictional, unidentified European country, The Consul focuses on the plight of one John Sorel, his wife Magda, his infant son, and his aging mother. John, a political dissident in a totalitarian state, is wanted by the police for his political opposition to the government. When the State’s secret police come looking for John, he is hidden by his wife and mother. The police ask questions but don’t find John. Once the police have left, John bids his family goodbye and heads for the border. Taking his leave, John, movingly sung by tenor Michael Orlinsky, sings a poignant duet with his wife, Magda, ravishingly sung by soprano Eliza O’Malley. This duet, like most (but not all) of the music in this production of The Consul is sung in English. Earlier, as The Consul opens, a street-singer, sung here by mezzo-soprano Liliane Cromer, croons in French. Later, in a scene at the consulate, a foreign woman sings in Italian.  

Alexander Katsman conducted a chamber orchestra of ten instrumentalists. One would think that such a small orchestra could hardly overwhelm the singers. Yet in the intimate and hard acoustic space of the Hillside Club this was a problem, especially in the First Act, though a word to the conductor at the first intermission seemed to bring about a better balance for Acts 2 and 3. Igor Vieira directed this production with superb aplomb. Especially effective was Vieira’s inclusion of video material of contemporary refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, including American protesters both for and against refugees, which was screened during the poignant instrumental music opening Act 3 of The Consul. Costumes were by Barbara Lim.  

In each of the three acts of The Consul there are two scenes, one in the home of the Sorel family, and one at the consulate where Magda goes to apply for a visa to allow her family to join her husband in exile. In the consulate scenes, bureaucracy is scathingly depicted as the order of the day, of every day. There are endless papers to fill out, endless requests for personal information, endless requests for documents. The consular secretary, ably sung by mezzo-soprano Michelle Rice, is a stickler for details and rules.  

As Act 2 opens, John’s mother sings a lullaby to comfort the infant son of John and Magda. The child is ill and unsmiling. The lullaby was beautifully rendered by mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus, who was excellent as John’s mother. The secret police return to the Sorel home and try to get names of John’s friends from Magda, but she refuses. This infuriates the secret police, and bass-baritone Jason Sarten was quite effective as the insinuating, threatening member of the State’s secret police, while baritone James McGoff was his ominous sidekick. In Act 2’s consulate scene, various people wait in line in hopes of obtaining a visa. Baritone J.T. Williams was excellent as Mr. Kofner, soprano Cara Gabrielson was superb as a Foreign Woman who spoke (and sang) only Italian, mezzo-soprano Bethany Goldson was a credible Vera Boronel, soprano Amy Foote was a fine Anna Gomez, and tenor Alexander Taite was outstanding as the magician Nika Magadoff, who beguiled and bewitched the crowd of visa-seekers with his magic tricks and experiments in hypnosis. At the close of Act 2, Eliza O’Malley as Magda erupted in a ranting soliloquy at the absurdity of the consular bureaucracy, asking, in a tour de force, if there really was a live human being in the next room where the consul had his office. “Tell me,” screamed Magda at the secretary, “Have you ever seen the consul? Does he even exist?” 

In Act 3 of Menotti’s The Consul, Magda informs the consular secretary that John’s mother and his infant son have both died. Increasingly desperate, Magda pleads for a visa or at least an audience with the consul. She is told to wait. Assan, one of John’s co-conspirators, arrives to warn Magda that John has sneaked back into town hoping to see her. If John is caught, says Assan, sung by baritone Igor Vieira, their entire group of activists will be endangered. Assan asks Magda to try to dissuade John from trying to see her. Magda writes a note to John in which, it is implied, she declares that she is about to commit suicide and urges John to save himself. Assan leaves to deliver the note to John, and Magda returns home. But John bursts into the consulate as it is about to close. He demands to see his wife. The secretary tells John his wife just left. The State’s secret police burst in, violently subdue John, and take him into custody. The secretary picks up the phone to call Magda. The final scene of The Consul takes place at the Sorel home. Magda takes pills to kill herself. A lengthy dream scene then occurs emphasizing Magda’s agony. This dream scene is a bit far-fetched and overdrawn, but then this is opera. As the dream comes to an end, Magda falls limp on the couch and dies. The telephone rings repeatedly, as the secretary tries in vain to contact Magda. Angular chords are heard in the orchestra as Menotti’s The Consul comes to a dramatic end. Donald Trump should be required to see Menotti’s The Consul.