The Consul, Gian Carlo Menotti
15th August, 2009
Your Hopes will be Filed
As the curtain opens on Glimmerglass Opera’s new production of Menotti’s The Consul, we let out a bemused sigh at the utter familiarity of the set: the interior of a post-war public building, designed in what a professor of mine once titled the “Early Ugly” period of architecture. It might be the DMV, or a public high school cafeteria. With its taupe brick walls, accented with bright colors, its blue plastic chairs and asymmetrical, “modern” steel lighting fixtures, the quality of drabness overlaid with forced cheer tells us this is a place where the friendly decorum belies a much grimmer reality. It is a place where we may feel one way, yet must present in another.
It is this essential confound of modern life - the truth of the inner realm subjugated to the heartless anonymity of “the system” - that defines the central theme of the opera, both dramatically and musically. It is an opera about the relationship between public and private, about the structures of civilization stifling the longings of our animal natures. Thoughtfully directed by Sam Helfrich and economically and effectively designed by Andrew Lieberman and Jane Cox, this confound was well-explored in an intelligent and often witty production that made up in insight and sincerity what it lacked in overall dramatic tension.
It is a fascinating premise, to compose an opera about people’s inability to communicate with one another. The only genuine connection between people in this piece, whether strangers or loved ones, seems to happen in spite of themselves, through their subconscious: in dreams, in memory, when hypnotized. Any more direct communication is inhibited by closed doors, forms in triplicate, and low-level gates pointlessly dividing up the room, in this case separating the characters not only from each other but obscuring them somewhat from us, the audience.
Photos by: Peyton Lea, Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera
Menotti preserves his most expansive and romantic music for the inner life of his characters in their plentiful asides. The easy grandeur of Ms. Citro’s voice (especially impressive for a young dramatic) astounded in these moments in which Magda Sorel’s tattered heart is exposed and she pours out her anguish or her hope. Though a bit stiff physically at times, Ms. Citro surely gave a committed, generous performance, and I felt she was at her best dramatically in the most naturalistic portions - in the spoken and semi-spoken text, for example - when she relaxed and, instead of being a martyr or hysteric simply became an Everywoman. I wondered if the stiffness was also partly a directorial choice, meant to express Magda’s paralyzing fear and powerlessness: she does not even approach the cradle of her dead baby in this production, but mourns from a distance.
Still, I appreciated the director’s avoidance of the literal in his staging of actions and use of the set. He trusts his audience to make imaginative leaps with him, and allows the set to function poetically: for example, he expresses the blending of the public and private realms by setting up portions of the characters’ homes within what was the consulate space in the second act. Somehow the existence of the burnished, hodge-podge mess of actual furniture and life within the sterilized beige walls was especially poignant. Other details, such as the Secretary emerging from the trapdoor as she arrives at work, provided a note of lighthearted absurdity that felt right in this piece.
Unfortunately - and this is certainly a challenge of this work - the journey of Mrs. Sorel (and the other supplicants at the consulate) was not as clear as one would desire it to be. The opera opens in full panic and repeatedly cycles back to that state, with what should be increasing tension and absurdity as the bureaucratic obstacles become ever more maddening. One did not feel sufficient relief at Magda’s finally being granted access to the consul, nor genuine terror or catharsis at her final breakdown. The development, if any, of the other characters was similarly unsatisfying. Although the role of The Secretary, gatekeeper to the consul, was performed with disarming and understated naturalism (and sung with a clear, pretty voice) by Leah Wool, her journey alone, from ice-cold bureaucrat to human being, could not provide story enough for all the others.
That being said, the opera was still finely-acted and sung overall, and the orchestra, under David Angus, played with precision and color, and never overbalanced the singers, even in the thickly-orchestrated sections.
Standouts in the cast included Joyce Castle, always a powerful singing actress, as The Mother, whose nuanced inflection and physicality fascinated whenever she was on the stage. Robert Kerr, in the role of the Secret Police Agent, seemed remarkably at ease and technically well-developed as a Young Artist. His somewhat formal diction and occasionally Italianate sound were a bit at odds compared to the rest of the cast (who otherwise had universally fine and easily comprehensible American diction), but his air of casual menace was convincing. Other Young Artists who bear mention include Eve Gigliotti, a rich-voiced Vera Boronel; Valentina Fleer as Anna Gomez, staged brilliantly as a shy, homeless teen, with a poignant voice and one spectacular high note; and Jacqueline Noparstak as The Foreign Woman, with a bright, clear sound that compensated for her clearly non-native Italian diction skills.
David Kravitz as Mr. Kofner possessed a warm and noble voice and had the appropriate downtrodden air; and of course special mention must go to John Easterlin as The Magician, whose skilled sleight-of-hand in (count ‘em!) 40 magic tricks was truly impressive and made it seem all the more magical that he could also actually sing. The opera press department informs us that Mr. Easterlin trained for more than 200 hours with magician Peter Samelson (surely supplemented by untold hours practicing at home), and I admire the director for taking such a bold stance in prioritizing the relevance of this role and the quality of the magic being performed.
The only weak point in the cast for me was Michael Chioldi as John Sorel, who had the right butch physicality but shouted unnecessarily. It is interesting also that this role, that of the fugitive “revolutionary”, is the only one that doesn’t seem to make much sense in the opera and makes the piece feely strangely dated. Is it that John Sorel reads to us as a revolutionary in the mid-20th century mold, a Fidel Castro or a Che Guevara, when the most politically impassioned (and paranoid) among us today are increasingly of the right, not the left wing?
Menotti, of course, did not want his opera to feel dated, and so he is deliberately non-specific in the libretto as to the place and time, or even the country, in which it is set. The director chose to embrace this ambiguity - the costumes and props refer to many different decades, and do not indicate any one culture - and I did not mind this tactic in this case. It was not important to know when and where we were, because the only reality was that of the consulate, and the state it represents, itself.
Only the sound of the Secretary’s typewriter took us back to another, specific time. I had to smile at Menotti’s unwittingly having dated his “universal” opera so by including this sound in the score, until it occurred to me: our computer keyboards may be a lot quieter than their predecessors, but they are surely only more, not less, ubiquitous, than the typewriter was. No longer must we set up camp in the consulate during the Secretary’s business hours; she may just pop out of the trapdoor in the floor into our living rooms at any moment.
Bottom line: Some great singing, some magic, some food for thought
Conductor: David Angus
Director: Sam Helfrich
Scenery: Andrew Lieberman
Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Lighting: Jane Cox
Magic Design: Peter Samelson
Hair & Makeup: Anne Ford-Coates
Magda Sorel: Melissa Citro
John Sorel: Michael Chioldi
The Mother: Joyce Castle
The Secret Police Agent: Robert Kerr
The Secretary: Leah Wool
Mr. Kofner: David Kravitz
The Foreign Woman: Jacqueline Noparstak
The Magician: John Easterlin
Vera Boronel: Eve Gigliotti
Anna Gomez: Valentina Fleer
Assan: Kevin Wetzel
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS PRODUCTION: http://www.glimmerglass.org