Glimmerglass Opera , Cooperstown, NY
August 9th, 2009
Music and Libretto: Gian Carlo Menotti
Director: Sam Helfrich
Set design: Andrew Lieberman
Conductor: David Angus
Magda Sorel – Melissa Citro
John Sorel – Michael Chioldi
The Mother – Joyce Castle
The Secretary – Leah Wool
The Magician – John Easterlin
One doesn’t often get the chance to see a fully-staged production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Cold War opera The Consul, a great hit after its debut in 1950. This is an opera of inaction, of waiting. John Sorel (baritone Michael Chioldi) comes home wounded from a meeting of dissidents. He must flee the country. He tells his wife Magda (Melissa Citro) that she must go to the Consulate for a visa so that she, their child, and his mother can join him in exile. At the Consulate, Magda joins a crew of hopeful, then hopeless, supplicants.
Andrew Lieberman’s set is striking. Rather than using enclosed spaces—this is, after all, a work about entrapment—he has created an open set, barely divided into sections. Little distinction appears between domestic and public space, and this choice makes us very aware of the constant surveillance Magda suffers. The characters–persecutors, sufferers, indifferent bureaucrats—breathe the same air, alternately attentive or indifferent to one another. Magda often sits quite still in what is supposed to be her home. Her physical presence is counter-balanced by that of the Secretary, who rules over the Consulate. (We never see the Consul, of course, but the closed door to his office remains a focal point). The Secretary is beautifully sung by Leah Wool, particularly in her Act III aria when she finally, too late, shows feelings for the lowly folk she has coldly dismissed in her lilting, waltzing refrain, “Your name is a number, your story’s a case.”
Citro tries to make her Magda into something more than a passive victim. There is a tension here, which she uses to great effect, between body and voice. The more Magda loses—child, mother, hope—the more important her voice becomes, until her great aria “To this we’ve come” in Act III. Magda, whose desperation has been building (Citro’s soaring, pleading cries have grown almost repetitive at this point), is now practically still, her tone grave and steady: a moment of realization. Citro’s liquid soprano becomes amazingly subdued, even while conveying a deep anger.
If the opera showed us only the Consul’s office, with its baffled and doomed occupants, it would be hard to take. But the domestic scenes add a key element. Mezzo Joyce Castle has taken on the role of the Mother (as she has in a number of other productions); in a work that strives musically (sometimes, perhaps, too hard) to evoke our pity and horror, this role is central. Castle’s rendition of the lullaby in Act II, when she tries to make the sickly grandchild smile, perfectly conveys an unsteady balance here between false hope, happiness, and acknowledgment of the presence of death. In an opera that sometimes pushes for emotional effect, this moment works beautifully. And it makes up for an overlong scene at the Consul’s office, when a magician, trying to assert his identity and sway the secretary, runs amok and, temporarily, takes over the place. Tenor John Easterlin does his best with this scene, but it is overlong and loses effect. Among the unhappy group forever waiting at the Consulate, David Kravitz and Jacqueline Noparstak stand out as Mr. Kofner and the Foreign Woman, conveying an essential quality of yearning, and, under the magician’s guidance, even a touch of romance. Baritone Robert Kerr, as the Secret Police Agent, ably shifts from a smooth, faux-friendly tone at the start to a truly menacing assertion of power in the end (his usurpation of the Secretary’s chair is a great moment).
A word of advice. It you are unfamiliar with the ending of the libretto, you might want to take a look. Helfrich offers us a more ambiguous conclusion.