Still Horribly Relevant, WNO’s The Consul Remains Powerful and Moving

14/06/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Menotti, The Consul: Soloists and Orchestra / Justin Brown (conductor). Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 12.6.2019. (GPu)

Giselle Alllen (Magda Sorel) and Leah Marian Jones (Secretary) (c) Johan Persson

Production:

Director – Max Hoehn
Set designer – Misty Buckley
Costume designer – April Dalton
Lighting designer – Mark Jonathan
Video designer – Hayley Egan

Cast:

John Sorel – Gary Griffiths
Magda Sorel – Giselle Allen
The Mother  – Catherine Wyn Rogers
Secret Police Agent – Richard Wiegold
The Secretary – Leah-Marian Jones
Mr Kofner – Daniel Grice
The Magician (Nikita Magadoff) – Peter Hoare
Assan – Themba Mvula
Anna Gomez – Chanae Curtis
The Foreign Woman  –  Freya Holliman
Vera Boronel – Sophie Dicks
Policemen – Timothy De Paul, Nick Hywell

The Consul was premiered on March 1950 at the Shubert Theatre in Philadelphia. Two weeks later it transferred to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway, where it ran for eight months and clocked up almost 270 performances, winning awards such as a Pulitzer Prize (1950) for Menotti and a New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for 1950. There followed several successful productions in Europe (e.g. in Zurich, Vienna, Hamburg, Berlin – and La Scala).

The Consul was Menotti’s first full-length opera, though he preferred to call it a ‘musical drama’, rather as most of the Italian ‘operas’ of the 17th and 18th centuries were originally described as dramma per musica, dramma da cantarsi or melodrama. There are lyrical set-pieces in The Consul
(indeed some of them such as the farewell trio in Act I and Magda’s aria ‘To This We’ve Come’ are amongst its finest moments), yet much in the work takes the form of a kind of heightened or intensified recitative.

The work originally responded, in general terms, to the political and social situation in the years after World War II, especially in Eastern Europe; a specific such case, reported in The New York Times, concerning a Polish would-be-immigrant who was denied entry to the USA and hanged herself in a detention cell on Ellis Island was apparently Menotti’s immediate stimulus to the planning of the work. As such the subject had an obvious relevance for its immediate audience; but one might argue that in many ways the work is even more pressingly and horribly relevant now than it was in 1950. Concerned as it is with police states, refugee crises, pervasive corruption, the issues around political asylum and the consciously destructive (one could say ‘murderous’) bureaucratic obfuscation invented by many governments, The Consul might have  been derived from the TV news and the newspapers of the last two or three years – and certainly deserves its place in WNO’s current season of performances, talks, films and more, under the title FREEDOM. As (now Sir) David Pountney writes in WNO’s Programme for the season – ‘Music and theatre may sometimes be arenas to escape from a troubled world. But they are also places where our human sensibilities and emotions are awakened and nurtured by the inspiration of art. Indeed, they are the very bedrock of our political intelligence and humanity – commodities we seem to need now more than ever’.

Not for the only time in my experience of Menotti’s work, I find that I admire his libretto more unreservedly than I do his music (taken as a whole). The libretto has some real, unaffected, poetry; is well structured and packs a considerable punch without being merely propagandist. Some early critics of the opera felt that Menotti prioritised drama over music and I think there is perhaps some truth in that objection. Yet Menotti’s writing for the voice is often superb and is firmly in the mainstream of the great Italian operatic tradition. It is his writing for the orchestra and the way it is used that troubles me. At times the orchestral music seems to be settling for performing the functions of a film score. I remember Edward Seckerson describing The Consul as ‘a kind of musical film noir’ And, again, while thinking more highly of The Consul, I concede that there is some truth in the observation.

This production, directed by Max Hoehn and presented on a bare stage, with most props wheeled on and off as needed, and the orchestra behind the main playing area certainly confirmed how well The Consul continues to work as a theatre piece. Menotti’s libretto is so thoroughly theatrical that it is easy to imagine it serving as the basis for a successful spoken drama, after such changes as the differences between spoken drama and ‘musical drama’ would make necessary. But one would miss the gentle lyrical beauty of the music to which The Mother sings her lullaby for John and Magda’s baby. My hypothetical spoken drama would be weakened by the loss of Menotti’s use, even if it is not especially subtly, of repeated motifs such as the one associated with the secret police, or that which characterises the Secretary.

On balance I find myself more in agreement with Arthur Benjamin (see Music and Letters, 32:3, 1951, pp.125-6), who found The Consul to display ‘an inborn theatrical sense’ and praised the way that Menotti used his music with ‘masterly effect’ in ‘the characterisation of his personages’, than with Andrew Clements, reviewing a 1971 production by the Guildhall School of Music (review click here) who wrote of the work’s ‘clunky dramaturgy’ and complained of ‘flagrant rip-off of Puccini, Strauss, Britten, and Richard Rodgers, and B-movie orchestral effects’. (I wouldn’t disagree too forcefully with the charge that Menotti’s orchestral writing is often derivative and would claim that his ‘borrowings’ are often well-used.

Max Hoehn’s production certainly gave prominence to The Consul’s virtues rather than its admitted weaknesses. In doing so, he had at his disposal a cast who performed the work with full commitment. Every member of the cast acquitted him/herself well. Giselle Allen’s Magda deepened greatly in emotional depth and intensity during the course of the performance. She was at her most powerful in her extended Act III solo beginning ‘Papers! Papers! Papers!’ which built to a terrifyingly intense frenzy in the midst of which there was a clarity of insight that made her an eloquent spokesman for all (in whatever time, whatever country) going through a similar experience. These would be powerful words if spoken by a good actress, but they are overwhelming when sung with Menotti’s forceful accompaniment.

As the Mother of Magda’s husband John, Catherine Wyn Rogers was both dignified and profoundly moving, and was in particularly fine voice. It is a clever touch by Menotti to show us her in constant contact with her grandchild. As the oldest and the youngest figures, they represent the extremes of the range of human beings suffering under totalitarian rule.  That they are also the first two figures to die is powerfully poignant. Gary Griffiths, as John Sorel, sang with apt power and energy, though Menotti provides the character with relatively little of his best words or music. Leah-Marian Jones gave us an outstanding performance as the Consular Secretary, cold and uncaring, dogmatically and evasively bureaucratic, until she finally thaws into a degree of humanity at the very end of the opera. Jones, who sang and acted very well throughout, made that ‘thawing’ (it would be too much to imagine that the Secretary has undergone some sort of lasting ‘conversion’) surprisingly plausible. Richard Wiegold was a quietly menacing Chief of the Secret Police, a genuinely disturbing presence. As Assan, Thembla Mvula had relatively little to do, but did it perfectly competently; Daniel Grice was an earnest and ‘respectful’ Mr. Kofner, doing his best to play the grim ‘game’ the system wanted him to play. Two current postgraduate students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Freya Holliman and Sophie Dicks gave assured performances in the relatively minor roles of (respectively) The Foreign Woman and Vera Boronel. A recent graduate of the same College, Chanae Curtis was equally assured as Anna Gomez, while the far more experienced Peter Hoare fused pomposity and ebullience, charm and insensitivity as Nikita Magadoff, the ‘famous’ Magician – Menotti’s caricature of the artist’s position in a world such as this. Taking account of the acknowledged weaknesses in Menotti’s orchestral writing, Justin Brown and his orchestra served the composer (and the occasion) well.

The audience (though not as large as one might have hoped) responded warmly and enthusiastically to this production of The Consul, a meaningful confirmation of its continuing power to make an emotional and though-provoking impact, even if it is in some ways an imperfect work.

Glyn Pursglove

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