“The Consul”: 1950 opera still a powerful affirmation of humanity
Patricia Racette as Magda in the final scene / Keith Ian Polakoff

LAWNDALE, Calif.—Italian-American opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) had his first big popular success with the full-length “musical drama” The Consul. It premiered in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, in 1950 and then moved to Broadway, where it received 269 performances. Just as the Cold War was unfolding, Menotti, who wrote both the lyrics and the music, issued a challenge to uphold democratic, humanitarian principles, such as had recently, in 1948, been codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Menotti balked at calling The Consul an “opera” because the word might have scared off potential theatergoers. It is “melodrama” in both the positive and negative senses of the word—simply a sung drama, but also in places a little, uh, melodramatic in the Italian hyper-realistic verismo tradition. He was part of a wave of American composers who sought out Broadway venues for their serious work in light of the reality that almost no professional opera companies would produce their work. “Broadway opera” became the term for these works from the 1930s to the 1950s by such artists as George Gershwin, Marc Blitzstein, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein and others.

The Consul went on to win the New York Drama Critics Circle awards as best Musical of 1950, and would earn Menotti a Pulitzer Prize for Music.

The opera takes place in an unnamed European totalitarian state where a Resistance movement is struggling for freedom and Magda Sorel is trying desperately to get out of the country with her baby and her mother to join her husband in exile. Given the recent history of fascism in Europe, Menotti may well have had in mind both those times and the subsequent tragedy of some 65 million displaced persons in the post-war world. He himself, as an Italian citizen, though resident in the United States since 1928, was labeled an “enemy alien” during World War II.

Some on the left, like Blitzstein, saw The Consul in somewhat more sinister terms. He was not surprised that the opera won such theatrical accolades, feeling that the critics were already acquiescing to the Cold War narrative that demonized the new bureaucratic “people’s republics” in the Eastern European Soviet bloc. However, Blitzstein may also have been voicing his jealousy that Menotti won for The Consul, while his own Broadway opera Regina the year before got no awards, tepid reviews and closed early. In fact, Menotti’s story was based on a New York Times account from 1947 of a Polish woman who committed suicide by hanging at Ellis Island, having just been denied entry to the country.

Fortunately for the longevity of the piece, the specifics are vague, untethered to any time or place, and they have continued to resonate since 1950. Audiences can generalize to their own experiences and understanding of the contemporary world. One denunciation of tyranny is in the end very much like another.

The Consul is very close to being a modern repertory piece, but the immediate impetus for Long Beach Opera to stage it now was that the leading dramatic soprano Patricia Racette had expressed interest in Magda Sorel as a role she’d like to tackle. LBO’s Artistic and General Director Andrea Mitisek, an Austrian who since last year now also has U.S. citizenship, jumped at the chance to feature Racette in her role premiere for Southern California audiences. For this production Mitisek serves as stage director and costume designer.

The opera shifts back and forth between the apartment of Magda and John Sorel—wounded by the police, John departs for the underground in the opening scene—and the Consul’s waiting room, where a number of others besides Magda spend their days, waiting. The Consul never appears: He is the personification of a faceless Kafkaesque bureaucracy. The waiting people’s days are filled with forms, questionnaires, papers, certificates, authorizations, 3×3 photos, with no end in sight. Anyone anywhere in the world without the proper documents can easily relate. As the anonymous Secretary tells them over and over again, “Your name is a number, your story’s a case.” In an extended aria, Magda sings:

To this we’ve come: that men withhold the world from men.
No ship nor shore for him who drowns at sea.
No home nor grave for him who dies on land.
To this we’ve come: that man be born a stranger upon God’s earth,
that he be chosen without a chance for choice,
that he be hunted without the hope of refuge.
To this we’ve come, to this we’ve come….

Oh! The day will come, I know,
When our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains.
Warn the Consul, Secretary, warn him
That day neither ink nor seal shall cage our souls.
That day will come, that day will come!

Menotti was well aware of the limited literary merits of most opera libretti and strove to make his mark not only as a musician but equally as a wordsmith. I have heard the lyrics to this aria recited as protest poetry. The Consul follows The Medium and The Telephone and precedes what became his best known work, the hour-long Christmas opera, originally broadcast on television, Amahl and the Night Visitors. In all he wrote some 25 operas, almost all in English, though the later ones were not so successful artistically as his first ones.

Conductor Kristof Van Grysperre leads an orchestra of 26 players. Racette is perfect as Magda, pathos and anger, frustration and resolve. John Sorel is sung by Justin Ryan, who was well received last spring in the LBO production of Philip Glass’ Walt Disney opera The Perfect American. Mezzo soprano Audrey Babcock sings a chilling Secretary, whose cheery private side we briefly see when she receives an unexpected call presumably from her boyfriend. Victoria Livengood, a mezzo with a true contralto timbre, performs the substantial role of The Mother; she sang in a recording of The Consul under Menotti’s direction. Bass baritone Cedric Berry is evil in the flesh as a Secret Police Agent out to crush “enemies of the state,” a handy phrase that suits many regimes.

Other characters are fellow denizens of the waiting room: Nika Magadoff (Nathan Granner), who fancies himself a great magician (“Art is the artist’s only passport”) and who provides a bit of comic relief to this otherwise bleak tale; Mr. Kofner (Zeffin Quinn Hollis), who also plays a minor role as the glass cutter Assan, an underground comrade of John’s, although he barely alters his appearance in the secondary role so I had trouble at first distinguishing them; The Foreign Woman (Jamie Chamberlin) speaking a vaguely Italian-Spanish; Anna Gomez (Lara Ryan); and Vera Boronel (Kira Dills-DeSurra).

The music is tonal, accessible, still contemporary sounding, incorporating fragments of French popular song and waltzes. Aside from Magda’s big memorable aria, there is a tearful goodbye trio when John leaves for the mountains, The Mother’s plaintive lullaby for the baby (“I believe that God receives with kindness the empty-handed traveler”), and a Waiting ensemble. Each of the waiting room personae also has their turn to reveal something of their circumstances and character. Originally written in three acts, this production is in two, with one intermission.

The set itself becomes almost an additional character or two: Its sharply raked expressionistic angles proclaim the noir surrealism of this cold, unwelcoming world. The Secretary’s desk in particular rises to dizzying heights, meant to signify the elusiveness of any resolution to this collection of unhappy human problems. Set designer Alan E. Muraoka discusses his inspiration and design for The Consul, and soprano Patricia Racette talks about her main aria on the LBO website here.

Southern California audiences have two more chances to see this riveting production with great voices and eye-catching staging. They are Fri., Oct. 20 at 8:00 pm and Sun., Oct. 22 at 2:30 pm at the Centinela Valley Center for the Arts, 14901 S. Inglewood Avenue, Lawndale, CA 90260. For tickets call the box office at (562) 683-2109 or go to the LBO website.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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