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A problematic production of a problematic work

Alice Busch Theater
07/25/2009 -  & 30 July, 1, 7, 9*,15, 18, 22, 24 August
Gian Carlo Menotti: The Consul
Melissa Citro (Magda Sorel), Michael Chioldi (John Sorel), Joyce Castle (The Mother), Leah Wool (The Secretary), Robert Kerr (The Secret Police Agent), John Easterlin (The Magician), David Kravitz (Mr. Kofner), Jacqueline Noparstak (The Foreign Woman), Eve Gigliotti (Vera Boronel), Valentina Fleer (Anna Gomez), Kevin Wetzel (Assan)
Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra, David Angus (Conductor)
Sam Helfrich (Director), Andrew Lieberman (Scenery Design), Kaye Voyce (Costume Design), Jane Cox (Lighting Design)

Unit set by Andrew Lieberman
(© Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera)

I can think of no other opera that had such a rampantly successful initial history as The Consul, what with an eight-month New York run in 1950, earning a Pulitzer Prize, then worldwide exposure with 12 translations and productions in 20 countries. A friend remembers seeing it in his Canadian home town, a city that to this day has no regular opera, but such was the piece’s urgency that a special production seemed to be called for. The plight of a family attempting to flee a totalitarian country and who are met with bureaucratic indifference from what ought to be a country of refuge had a resonance in the immediate post-World War II years. Its socio-political relevance continues today, but this does not assure continued stagings. Nowadays it has but a sporadic place in the operatic repertoire. The website www.Operabase.com, the most comprehensive international listing to my knowledge, shows just four productions worldwide from August, 2008 to the end of 2012. A comparison with two other mid-20th century works of similar seriousness (if not grimness) - all relating a tale that leads to the inexorable suicide of the central figure - shows Berg’s Wozzeck with 29 productions in the same period, and Britten’s Peter Grimes with 24.

Glimmerglass has a fine record in its 35 years of presenting contemporary and/or American works. Significantly, this is their first presentation of a work by Menotti.

In 45 years of opera-going, this was my first chance to see the work in its entirety. ( I had seen staged excerpts in college settings.) I was hoping to see either a vindication of the work or definitive reasons as to why it has faded from the repertoire - and found neither. For one thing, the staging of the Glimmerglass production poses problems. The work calls for just two alternating settings: the drab and claustrophobic apartment of the beleaguered Sorel family (John and Magda Sorel, their sickly baby, and his mother) and the waiting room of the office of the Consul, the all-important man we never see thanks to his obdurate Secretary. (Menotti composed suitably atmospheric music to cover the scene changes.) Instead, director Sam Helfrich and designer Andrew Lieberman give us an expansive setting with four separate playing areas, two toward the front of the stage and two in behind. Thus while the Sorels discuss their situation in their apartment, we can also see the secretary’s desk, the waiting area for other supplicants, and the police agent listening with earphones. As a result, much needed dramatic focus is significantly weakened.

The design also updates the era to the 60s or 70s, with bright plastic chairs, an electric typewriter, etc. This helps bring the work toward our day, giving us a reminder (if such is needed) that repression is hardly a relic of the noir-ish past.

There are many strong performances. The role of Magda overshadows all other characters in the work and Melissa Citro does an admirable job. Her great scene in Act II is the fulcrum of the piece and receives a deserved ovation. Michael Chioldi’s strong voice and model enunciation makes one wish the role of John Sorel were longer. As for Joyce Castle’s Mother, it is a real privilege to see a performer who is exactly right for the role and who also performs it so well. A definite weakness in the scenario is the disappearance of this character without explanation.

The program informs us that John Easterlin spent 200 hours learning the magic tricks the Magician (another petitioner at the Consul’s office) must perform. He carries the trickery off with aplomb, but even this plus strong singing fails to erase my impression that his lengthy scene really serves as padding. Leah Wool is too wholesome-looking for the stony-faced Secretary but she does act convincingly with her voice when a hard tone is required. Robert Kerr, a member of the festival’s Young American Artists Program, maintains a clear focus in his portrayal of the Secret Police Agent.

The most frustrating moment in the production is the fudging of the final scene where Magda commits suicide in her flat while the telephone rings unanswered. (If she did answer it, she would hear yet more doleful news from the Secretary, namely that her husband has been arrested.) Director Helfrich has Magda simply sitting in a chair, staring straight ahead, ripping up pages from her bureaucratic file. An acquaintance asked me afterward just what was supposed to happen - “does she turn herself over to the police?” Were the production team trying to give us a glimmer of hope instead of the original despairing ending? If so, it doesn’t work. Menotti composed a kind of grand (transcendental?) orchestral climax for the end, but that seems to be a tacked-on operatic convention.

Menotti has been criticized for composing in an outmoded vein resulting in a warmed-over verismo style. To my ears, much of it sounds a lot like the eclectic expressionism many composers use today, some effectively, many not. Perhaps musical opinion has been coloured by his many subsequent operatic efforts. His next work, Amahl and the Night Visitors, is a seasonal staple, but other works, many receiving high-profile premieres, have failed to establish themselves. The Consul has its fans - acolytes even. There could have been more in Cooperstown to help fill the numerous empty seats.

Glimmerglass has made a solid effort with The Consul, significantly the one work directed this year by the festival's Music Director, David Angus. Unfortunately decent musical values are undermined by a wrong-headed production.

Michael Johnson



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