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Seattle Opera's The Consul

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When the Seattle Opera announced its 2013-2014 season, the most intriguing question was "Will it be able to make a compelling case for Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul?" Since that opera has had a performance history that is considerably less gaudy than Aida, Boheme or Carmen, it is not an inquiry of mere academic interest.

The Consul is a relentlessly dark opera, filled with gloom and ambiguity. It is a slander in three acts on bureaucrats everywhere. I was frankly surprised that the opening night performance was not picketed by Functionaires sans Frontiers (Bureaucrats Without Borders).

Bureaucracy has a bad name these days, and we tend to forget that it was created as the organized antidote to capricious and corrupt behavior by public officials. Rules and regulations were originally promulgated to remove the temptation to favor one person (or group) at the expense of another person (or group) for illegitimate reasons...such as bribery or nepotism. I need not tell you that it hasn't quite worked out as planned. And the poster child for bureaucracy run amok is the vast, impenetrable morass that is the Immigration Authorities everywhere. My recollection is that The Metropolitan Opera lost its initial director of a recent new production of Boris Godunov because he felt sufficiently disrespected by American consular officials that he withdrew in a huff over their perceived maltreatment of him.

The title character in The Consul is never seen, although he is once espied in shadow. He is the operatic version of The Great and Powerful Oz, able to make decisions of life and death without having to answer to discernible authority. One may never see The Consul, guarded as he is by a secretary (very well sung and acted by Sarah Larsen) who enforces The Rules with the strictness shown by an Argentine despot toward those to whom he is indifferent. Like Kafka in his day job, she wields a rubber stamp with unseemly efficiency.

The plot of the opera is not difficult to limn. John Sorel is a freedom fighter (or "hooligan" if you own shares in a State enterprise) who must flee his unnamed country in that he is wanted by the secret police. Before he makes a run for the border he tells his wife Magda that she must go to the consulate of an also unnamed country and speak to The Consul, who will not turn a deaf ear to her pleas. The secret police arrive and make less than delicate inquiries of Magda, John's mother (or is it her mother? the libretto has it both ways) and much is made of the sickly nature of the Sorel infant (foreshadowing!) So Magda heads off to the consulate where, like the beginning of Casablanca, she waits. And waits. And waits. "I must see the consul." "You cannot see the consul, the consul is busy." Needless to say, the child dies, Magda is driven to suicide, the mother disappears, John is captured by the secret police, and all the while the secretary stamps endless papers, the "Thunk!" of the stamp on the document doing a creditable imitation of the sound of the guillotine at the end of Andrea Chenier...or The Dialogues of the Carmelites.

All of this doubtless falls on more receptive ears now then it did in 1950 when the opera first premiered. Back then there was a deep well of sympathy for "freedom fighters" behind the Iron Curtain, bu not to the degree that was found after the Hungarian Revolution (which The Consul predated by six years). In the intervening 64 years there has been a decided turn against government in general and the bureaucracy in particular. The idea of a cold, unfeeling, hidebound bureaucracy crushing the human spirit was a literally foreign concept in 1950; it is now the One True and Revealed Gospel of the Republican Party and its bastard child the Tea Party. What was assumed to be sympathy for Magda (the protagonist) in the 1950's given her marriage to a freedom fighter has now morphed into sympathy for her as a victim of a cruel and heartless bureaucracy.

What stops this from becoming an appalling piece of Ted Cruz propaganda comes from the least expected quarter: Directorial restraint. A hack would point out the rage against The State at every possible moment, and some that are not possible, which would doubtless make for effective agitprop but terrible opera. And the reality is that director Peter Kazaras, known to me to be a decent, compassionate human being, has far too much respect for the music and for Menotti's skill to go for cheap "Oh dear God will you look at how the government is crushing this poor woman" effects. Understatement can go a very long way.

For The Consul Menotti served as his own librettist, which is a capital way to avoid disagreement but is not a guarantee of compelling theater. But there is assuredly enough for a highly talented director to work with, so long as he or she is given singing actors and understands that the orchestra is as crucial to success as anything the director does. The Consul is among the last of the Twentieth Century operas that was not lopsidedly libretto-driven, which is to say that Menotti understood that it is the music as well as the words that propels the opera forward and illuminates the details.

Carlo Montanaro conducted a performance that assumed Menotti's opera is a masterpiece and did everything humanly possible to make everyone in the house believe it as well. He paced it crisply, and he does a splendid job of supporting his singers. So complete was his commitment to the music that unless you were aware of the Broadway genesis of the work you'd never guess it from the performance.

In Saturday evening's performance, Magda was sung by Marcy Stonikas; in Sunday afternoon's performance the role was assayed by Vera Slywotzky. Ms. Stonikas is a good (not great...yet) actress with a massive yet beautiful voice. Ms. Slywotzky's voice is smaller and every bit as supple; she is an even better actress. Ms. Stonikas faints brilliantly; Ms. Slywotzky less so. Both gave riveting performances. The remainder of the case was unchanged in both performances.

Lucille Beer was the mother, and she acted the part well. Unfortunately, I do not find her voice to be particularly appealing; the old definition of a contralto as a mezzo with a head cold came to mind all too frequently. Her voice, although not to my taste, was not unpleasant.

Michael Todd Simpson does not have a lot to do as John Sorel, but what he did he did very well indeed. It is a role that calls for a lot of acting and urgent singing. Steven LaBrie (is the man really named for a cheese?) was suitably menacing as the agent of the Secret Police; I assume that Peter Kazaras had something to do with his portrayal, which was ingratiating in an oily manner instead of menacing... and thus both more effective and more chilling. Alex Mansoori, coached by magician Samuel Shaefer, impressed as the sleight-of-hand artist (and fellow visa seeker) Nika Magadoff. The smaller roles were filled by many alumni of the Seattle Opera Young Artist program, and all were excellent. The Consul is an ensemble opera, and the ensemble was great.

For practical purposes, there were two sets designed by David Gordon: The Sorel house and the Consul's waiting room. The former was suitably claustrophobic, and the latter featured near floor to ceiling file drawers. The wall of drawers had the unpleasant effect of reminding me of the nasty comment made by a Boston newspaper when the New England Patriots were threatening a move to Hartford, Connecticut. Hartford, it was remarked, is "America's File Cabinet." When I travel across the continental United States for an opera, I most emphatically do NOT want to be reminded of Connecticut's capitol city. This particular problem did not plague the local patrons.

Melanie Taylor Burgess's costumes were of the finest sort: The kind that never call attention to themselves. Duane Schuler's lighting design was little short of brilliant. Video and audio clips can be accessed on the Seattle Opera's website http://www.seattleopera.org

The Consul is hardly a light and pleasant evening at the opera house, but it is a richly rewarding one. A live performance will be streamed on KING-FM's web site http://www.king.org on Saturday evening, March 1st at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time. If you are east of Denver, it is well worth staying up for.