A selective guide to arts commentaries in print and websites elsewhere.
Introduction to Broad Street Review, plus biographies and contact points for our editors and contributors.
See a list of coming appearances by BSR's writers.
Menotti’s ‘The Consul’ at PrincetonBY: Steve Cohen 08.06.2011
I had begun to believe that Menotti’s The Consul was an unworthy relic of an outdated era. In Princeton last month, to my astonishment, it demonstrated both dramatic and musical strength.
The Consul. Music and libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti; conducted by Joel Revzen; Michael Unger directed. Opera New Jersey production July 16 and 24, 2011 at McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J. (609) 258-2787 or www.opera-nj.org/performances/consul.html.
A Cold War surpriseSTEVE COHEN
A revival of Menotti’s opera, The Consul, made a strong impression last month at Princeton, N.J.—a pleasant surprise for me as well as the audience.
Having been influenced by many critics, not to mention The Consul’s recent neglect by opera companies, I had begun to believe that The Consul was an unworthy relic of an outdated era. To my astonishment, it demonstrated both dramatic and musical strength.
The opera is understood best when we look at the world in 1950, when it opened. The Consul was written in an era of big cars with tailfins and general all-around swaggering American post-war self-confidence. The U.S. had emerged from wartime patriotic films and now was absorbed by the exaggerated melodrama of film noir. In this environment, Menotti’s emotional, gimmick-packed music drama became a critical and commercial hit.
His score was filled with soaring melodies and his plot was filled with cloak-and-dagger conflict between freedom fighters and a totalitarian regime during the Cold War. The locale isn’t specified, but it seems to be a Soviet-ruled country, perhaps Poland.
Bureaucrats, then and now
An Iron Curtain had descended over Europe, and, as Winston Churchill said in 1946, “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory.” People like Menotti’s fictional Jean Sorel, who had resisted the Nazis, now found themselves fighting a new tyranny. While Jean fled from the secret police, his wife Magda, her baby and her mother applied for visas to leave the country.
Menotti’s libretto pointedly criticized the bureaucratic delays that delayed the flight of refugees from Europe into the U.S., a theme that still resonates today.
The Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns, in a largely negative review, found it implausible that the opera’s heroine didn’t take her sick child to a hospital. But as a dissident alien in a totalitarian nation, whose husband was being hunted by the police, she was afraid to take her child to a government-run hospital.
I would raise a different and (to me) more logical question about The Consul: Why did Magda apply to, and keep returning to, one foreign consulate in search of an exit visa? Why didn’t she turn to another democratic or western country’s embassy?
But these are matters of logic in a drama that concerns feelings more than reason.
Master of orchestration
Menotti is often described as a latter-day throwback to Puccini, and I see some similarities to Puccini’s darker operas such as Il Tabarro. But it’s notable that most of Menotti’s melodies are voiced by winds and low brass rather than by the string section. He is such a master of orchestration that the big orchestra never drowns out the singers.
Lina Tetriani was powerful as the doomed heroine, Magda Sorel. Her soprano voice was even darker and richer than that of Patricia Neway, who originated the role and sang it on TV and in a recording. The youthful-looking Tetriani owns a darker, well-focused voice that also soars on the highest notes.
She was ably supported by the mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle as her mother. Castle’s voice glowed in her lullaby to her dying grandchild, and Tetriani earned an ovation with her big aria, “To this we’ve come.”
Menotti’s old friend
Baritone Nicholas Pallesen was the dedicated Jean Sorel, mezzo Audrey Babcock was a forbidding Secretary and tenor Jason Ferrante was a creepy Magician.
By devoting much time to the Magician’s part, as well as to an extended surrealistic suicide finale, Menotti reflected the time in which he wrote The Consul. Today, these scenes seem overwrought, but they’re understandable for the mid-20th Century.
The stage design by Michael Schweikardt was impressive, with a rear wall of file cabinets that descended to cover the kitchen when the scene shifted from the consulate to the Sorels’ home. Michael Unger directed efficiently. Joel Revsen, an old associate of Menotti’s, conducted the New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra with color and passion.
Respond to this Article