The story of The Consul, Gian Carlo Menotti's 1950 opera, is all too familiar from today's news. During the two intermissions at McCaw Hall Saturday night, opera-goers discussed, debated and recalled situations similar to those the opera portrayed.
An active protester, in a nameless country under a repressive regime, is wounded and sought by the secret police. He flees, encouraged by his devoted little family: wife and mother, plus ailing infant son. The family is hounded and Magda, his wife, is followed. She requests an exit visa from the Consulate to follow her husband and is caught up in the impersonal wheels of bureaucracy, personalized by the Secretary and demonstrated by all the other desperate people waiting, waiting for a visa. The waiting, the police, the never-present Consul, the increasing pressure and desperation continue and lead to desperate acts. There is no happy ending.
Today it’s Kiev, but in no continent is this scenario foreign in one way or another, not even North America. Remember J. Edgar Hoover and the House Unamerican Activities Committee?
For this production, Seattle Opera cast nine former Seattle Opera Young Artists. It says much for this program that all of them are building successful opera careers, some of them major, including soprano Marcy Stonikas, who sang Magda, baritone Michael Todd Simpson as her husband, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen as the Secretary. This opera however, requires fine acting as much as fine singing.
Magda’s role is the heart of the tale, and Stonikas carried it off magnificently, from the practicality of tending to John’s wound and getting him away, her strength and optimism, to her increasing tension, loss of hope and distorted, phantasmagoric nightmares. As the mother, mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer delivered one of the few gentle parts of the opera, the lullaby she sings to the child. Simpson’s small role erupted on stage. Next to Magda, the most compelling role is the consulate secretary. Larsen looked and sounded every inch the 1950s bored bureaucrat. Only toward the end do we see a spark of humanity. From her slingback heels, form-fitting uniform and aggressive hairdo, to her utterly uninterested command for the “Next!” poor supplicant, Larsen nailed the role.
Stage director Peter Kazaras brings his usual unerring eye for detail and David Gordon’s set for the consulate office, borrowed from the Arizona Opera, is brilliant—the room filled with floor to ceiling file drawers, lit from behind, looming menacingly over applicants. The music, conducted by Carlo Montanaro and very little of it hummable, ratcheted tension with anxious winds, pounding percussion, piano and brass at times assaulting the senses, others creating an uneasy lull.
Pictured above: Sarah Larsen (the Secretary) and Marcy Stonikas (Magda Sorel) in The Consul. Photo by Elise Bakketun.