18 July 2011

Menotti’s ‘Consul’ at Opera New Jersey

To this we’ve come, Part 1:
Magda (Tetriani) confronts the Secretary (Babcock).
All production photos by Jeff Reeder, Courtesy of Opera New Jersey©

Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, went to the opera on Saturday night — and what an opera she picked! Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul depicts the increasingly desperate attempts of a political dissident’s wife to obtain a visa in order to flee her homeland for the relative safety of a larger nation. Stylistically, the ensuing bureaucratic nightmare is more Playhouse 90 than Franz Kafka, but close enough, and in any case I wonder what Napolitano can have thought of the opera. After all, immigration and refugees are among her day-to-day concerns, and one person’s dissident is another person’s terrorist. And while Menotti scrupulously avoids naming the country whose Consulate is the setting for half the opera, almost everybody has assumed he was talking about the United States, ever since the show opened in 1950, on Broadway.

I didn’t find out that Secretary Napolitano was at Princeton’s McCarter Theater until after the show had ended. For me, Opera New Jersey’s production was most significant for the participation of Joyce Castle, as the Mother, and of Joel Revzen, who conducted a thrilling recording of this score (with Joyce) for Newport Classics several years ago. Also of significance: this would be the last opera I would attend before my 50th birthday.

To this we’ve come, Part 2:
The Diva gave me flowers after a performance. That was a first.
Joyce Castle and WVM, backstage, 16 July 2011.

Michael Unger’s stage direction lacked some of the more detailed character work that this piece really invites: instead of Stanislavskian Method, we got relatively shallow, representational acting from most (but not all!) of the cast. For example, as the Secret Police Agent, Matt Boehler sang with bite and menace, but he made scant (and unsubtle) use of his potentially menacing physicality. Unger’s approach was so intelligent, however, that I suspected he could have elicited even more interesting work from Boehler with just a little more rehearsal time.

Nicholas Pallesen has further to go, but if the young baritone will work more on his acting, he may be on the brink of a major career: for now he sings with gorgeous, sit-up-and-pay-attention tone, but he remains uninvolved dramatically, and we got from him only the sketchiest outlines of John Sorel’s emotions.

As John’s wife, Magda Sorel, Tbilisi-born soprano Lina Tetriani also displayed a ravishing voice, and she’s got appealing stage presence. Her acting increased in confidence and specificity as the evening progressed, and by the time she arrived at her big number, “To this we’ve come,” she had established a touching, memorable character, lending the scene extra poignancy. I’m eager to hear her again.

Magda’s foil, the Secretary, was mezzo Audrey Babcock, striking a nice balance between comedy and terror until, in Act III, her bureaucratic frostiness melts and we see the compassionate creature within her. Babcock turns out to be a bombshell offstage: it can’t be easy to mask that much va-voom.

I also enjoyed Jason Ferrante’s adroit portrayal of the maladroit Magician, and the company’s Emerging Artists handled their roles with skill. While it may be a tough sell to audiences (and all praise to Opera New Jersey for programming it), Menotti’s opera does recommend itself to smaller companies, I realized, precisely because it’s got only a few central roles that demand seasoned pros, alongside so many minor supporting roles, that are perfect for young artists: the kids get valuable stage experience, while the grownups bear the responsibility for the success of the performance.

The Secret Police Agent (Boehler) menaces Magda (Tetriani) and the Mother (Castle).

Even if all you’re counting is the résumé, Joyce Castle’s experience would be hard to beat: she’s sung the Mother in four productions, I believe. Add to that the qualitative assessment that this is Joyce Castle, for Pete’s sake, and you get an unbeatable performance. In her hands, the Mother is a woman who knows she’s not like her kids; she wasn’t born to be a hero, and when she does show defiance, it’s small-scale. You recognize her from TV news reports, not history books and statues.

Intriguingly, in Unger’s staging, the Mother is less beaten-down than the character was in Sam Helfrich’s production for Glimmerglass, in 2009. She’s almost an optimist, in fact, until the death of her grandson, which stops her in her tracks. We could see that she’s been a unifying force in this family, and that her death (which takes place offstage in Act III), as much as the baby’s, might well cast Magda and John adrift.* Joyce’s singing was thrilling, too, especially powerful in the Act I trio and tender in Act II’s heartbreaking lullaby.

Michael Schweikardt came up with a truly arresting, inventive visual image: a bank of filing cabinets that dominated the stage. For scenes in the Sorels’ apartment, the center rows of cabinets flew offstage, revealing a cramped top-floor room. That should have made scene changes easier: just stuff one scene’s furniture onto the platform behind the cabinets as the next scene begins. Instead, the audience has to endure a lot of tedious back-and-forth as stagehands (actually Emerging Artists with little to sing in this production) toted chairs and tables on and off. Just because Menotti wrote scene-change music, it doesn’t mean that’s what it has to be used for!

And you thought it was Kafkaesque before!
Magda’s dream, Act III

The way Revzen conducts this opera, one hardly needs a staging at all: listen to his recording, and you can hear every gesture, see every prop and costume. He’s no less skillful in this performance. What an unjustly under-recognized talent he is! Especially in this score, Menotti’s authentic gift for theatrical music gets its full due under Revzen’s attentive guidance. Sure, portions of the drama cry out for more dissonance and less prettiness — but The Consul is an effective piece with a lot to say to contemporary audiences.

Including Janet Napolitano — and me — and you, if you’re lucky. There’s one more performance:

Menotti’s The Consul
Opera New Jersey
Matthews Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center
Princeton, NJ
24 July at 2 PM.
Click here for ticket information.

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