05 August 2009

Glimmerglass 2009: The Consul

The Connoisseur’s Favorite:
Joyce Castle sings a fateful lullaby.
Photograph by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

Since I began the process of moving to France — five years ago this month — it was only a question of time before I’d come to know and to appreciate Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul (1950, to his own libretto). Opera-minded friends were wont to quote Magda’s aria, “To this we’ve come,” whenever I recounted my latest travails at the French Consulate in New York or, later, at the Préfecture in Versailles. When at last I heard the score for the first time, on a 1998 recording of a live performance at the Berkshire Opera from Newport Classics, under Joel Revzen, I felt as if Menotti had been following me and taking notes. The soullessness of modern bureaucracy, the reduction to mere paperwork of the human yearning both for flight and for rest, were all become a part of my experience. (Happily, the bits about being hounded by the secret police were not.)

At Glimmerglass this season, I’ve had my first opportunity to see a fully staged production of The Consul, and the lady responsible for the introduction is a star both of the staging and of that recording, the mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle. She has appeared now in four productions of this opera, singing the Mother, and I’m grateful to check off another of her signature roles from a distinguished list.

That Joyce is one of the greatest singing actresses of our time is beyond debate among those who’ve heard her even once, but to understand what that really means, consider that, after a martini and only a little encouragement, my co-president in the Official Joyce Castle Fan Club, Darren Keith Woods, who is also general director of Fort Worth Opera, will act out her greatest hits, at length and in detail. So will I — but Darren is himself a former comprimario tenor, with a keener appreciation than mine of the artistry involved. Joyce is a connoisseur’s favorite.

Closing in: The Agent (Kerr) interrogates Magda (Citro),
while her Mother (Castle) looks on.
Photograph by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

She is entering her fortieth season as a performer, and since meeting her in 1984, I’ve made a point of hearing her whenever I can, especially at New York City Opera but also in Boston, Wilmington, and here in Cooperstown. In every performance, she finds a telling physical detail (or several) to make not only her own role but the entire work fresh and clear. In the case of the Glimmerglass Consul, she did nothing short of constructing the set that’s called for by the libretto, yet which the scenic designer (Andrew Lieberman) and stage director (Sam Helfrich) disregarded.

The Consul is a claustrophobic work, about people who want to escape but can’t: in music and text, it calls for a set that really closes in on the actors. Lieberman and Helfrich opted instead for a wide-open set that emphasizes the constant surveillance under which the characters live, and the reality that all of them — bureaucrats, would-be refugees, even the secret police — live together, in the same conditions, under the same watchful eyes. That’s all well and good, as an intellectual conceit, but it isn’t really what this opera is about.

Menotti: He dared to be tonal.

So you can imagine my disgruntlement, at first view of Lieberman’s set, and then my relief as Joyce fretted and paced, her shoulders stooped, exactly as if she were living in the cramped quarters the opera depicts. Those shoulders revealed age, too, weariness and regret. This life, in these cold conditions, under this regime, has become a burden to her. The Mother doesn’t want out — she wants only for her children to get out, and be safe, somehow, though she knows she’s powerless to help them. All by herself, Joyce created what the production team neglected. Extraordinary.

At least Helfrich and Lieberman gave us the closed door behind which the title character hides: the Consul himself is never seen, perhaps not even by his own secretary. But in some other important ways, Helfrich missed the point of this opera, and the most significant of these, I think, lies in his interpretation of the Secretary, here sung splendidly by the charming Leah Wool. The Consul’s central character, Magda Sorel, is buffeted in alternating scenes by two powerful forces: at home, by the Secret Police, and in the Consulate, by the bureaucracy (foreign, probably American). These are the two faces of state power: two different states, with two different approaches, and by dint of its officious impersonality, Menotti suggests, the consular bureaucracy is even more inhuman than the secret police. (At least the Secret Police care what happens to John, Magda’s dissident husband, even if they only want him dead.) We shouldn’t have any indication that the Secretary has real feelings, that the folks requesting visas are anything more than numbers and files to her, until her solo aria in Act III — and then it should come as a shock, because she’s been so cold up to that point.

Apparatchniks: The Agent (Kerr) and the Secretary (Wool)
meet John Sorel (Chioldi).
Photograph by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

Thus, in Act II, when the Magician (John Easterlin) finally gets his opportunity to speak with the Secretary, we should feel his desperation, first as he deploys his entire bag of tricks (literally) in an attempt to win her over, and then even more strongly as he comes up short of the necessary paperwork. “Every file not completely filled out will be refused,” the French prefects warn me, and in like fashion the Secretary dismisses the Magician. The moment should be devastating, because we know he’s been waiting, day after day, without ever advancing his cause, or even getting this far. But Wool’s Secretary has been so sympathetic already, and the Magician’s tricks both too good and too numerous, that we can’t quite grasp how badly he’s blown his chance, and the moment loses most of its impact.

Musically, the performance was much more successful. Conductor David Angus, who’s music director of Glimmerglass, made a strong case for the score, too rarely heard. Yeah, Menotti is only barely post-Puccinian in his musical language, and entirely accessible — but you know what? Puccini is very nearly the most recent opera composer to find a wide audience*, and if you want people to listen to your work, you’ll take tips from him, much as Menotti did. For several decades after World War II, this strategy was anathema to “serious” composers, but many of Menotti’s works are splendid music-theater, to which listeners will respond, and in the case of The Consul, there’s nothing pedestrian or “easy” about the message, no matter how lush and melodic the score. The work is worth performing, more so than other operas in the standard rep, and especially with the dramatic conviction that Angus brought to the job.

Prime: Angus steers his orchestra.
Photograph by Cory Weaver/Glimmerglass Opera

Melissa Citro used liquid soprano tone to create a memorable Magda. This is a fairly passive character, as operatic heroines go, who mostly pleads and waits, so that Citro’s understated acting was a gamble that didn’t quite pay off: I’d like to see more intensity throughout, and more fearful nervousness in the Consulate scenes, even when she’s only listening to other characters. Waiting around is a matter of life and death for Magda, whose loved ones will drop, one by one, over the course of the opera: the reality (albeit here only a muted implication) is that Magda herself will be next to die. I never felt that urgency, however.

Baritone Michael Chioldi, Joyce’s co-star in that Berkshire Consul, couldn’t be better as John Sorel, infusing his voice with a mixture of revolutionary fire and sheer helplessness that perfectly depict his character. As the ringleader of the Secret Police, Robert Kerr combined imposing baritone singing with looming physical menace to create a low-rent Baron Scarpia — exactly right.

Given the director’s interpretation, Wool was pitch-perfect as the Secretary, looking like Mary Richards and sounding like molten silver. Her duet with the radiant Young American Artist Eve Gigliotti, as visa recipient Vera Boronel, was a highlight, their voices blending gorgeously. Easterlin’s gleaming tenor may even be too good for the Magician; and he made so much of the popinjay dimensions of the character that to see him denied his moment of defeat was especially disappointing.

Domestic Disturbances: Castle, Chioldi, and Citro
Photograph by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

Valentina Fleer’s Anna Gomez made one yearn to hear her again in a larger role. Two more young singers, Jacqueline Noparstak and David Kravitz (Dr. Grenvil in Traviata), turned in strong performances as the Foreign Woman and Mr. Kofner, the only person who understands what she’s saying. (However, Noparstak’s Italian accent was strictly tourist trade. This raised interesting character possibilities — maybe she’s a fake! — but could be a liability in other operas.)

And what of Joyce? She sounded quite simply brilliant — forty years on, she’s very much in her prime, with warmth and power to spare. Every word rang true: she could give lessons in diction (and she does, or anyway she’s on the vocal faculty at the University of Kansas). And yet that’s merely technique. There’s probably no way to teach her feeling for a role, and in the Mother’s lullaby to her ailing grandson, a stunning showcase, so many colors combined: humor and poetry, tender affection and a curious harping on passing time and impending death, as if she knows already the baby is dead, yet can’t bring herself to say the words.

And did I mention that she built the set, too?

*Along with Richard Strauss. That Meister’s summing up of Puccini is among my favorite put-downs: “These days, every idiot knows how to orchestrate perfectly.”


mogliettina said...

This review was so completely right on the money that I didn't want it to end. But you cut it short in not addressing the quizzical, non-Menotti ending that ruined this wonderful production for me. The made-up ending was a travesty for me. Director Helfrich just hubristically believed that he could write a better opera than Menotti.
Even the orchestra's mimic of gas was lost on everyone because, unless one had seen previous productions, hardly anyone actually knew that Magda even had died, let alone take her life by placing her head in an oven.
The important last line of the Magician, "Breathe deeply, breath deeply" was sadly lost.
Other than not discussing the ending, (why didn't you?), your wonderful review and opinion of the singers,(Castle reigning supreme for me while I hoped for so much more in the emotional field from Magda), certainly spoke for me better than any I have read.

William V. Madison said...

Why didn’t I write about the ending? I was trying not to spoil the suspense! (Or at least the little suspense that Helfrich respected.)

Now that the production has run its course, yes, I wholly agree with you: it was impossible to tell what, if anything, happened to Magda at the end of the opera. Consequences – such as making Magda seem even more passive, instead of less so – were dire.

Yet to look at the “big picture,” this was an especially shameful bit of directorial license because it must be expected that most people in the Glimmerglass audience had never seen a production of Consul – and never will have the opportunity to see it again. Helfrich squandered some impressive talent and a rare occasion.