`Consul' exhibits power of opera

Review: Menotti's potent revival of his 50-year-old work shows off his lyrical genius.

January 01, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

According to composer and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti, a good opera needs four ingredients - love, compassion, outrage and wonder. He indelibly demonstrated those essentials in "The Consul," which premiered 50 years ago and has been given a potent revival by the Washington Opera.

Putting a starkly human face on hideous problems faced by European freedom fighters and refugees, post-World War II, Menotti created a gripping piece of theater that is propelled by some of his most passionate, memorable music.

We get love (husband and wife, mother and child, patriot and country); a quest for compassion (attempts to gain visas from an unseen consul); a sense of outrage (at the consul, his secretary, secret police, bureaucratic paperwork).

There is a touch of wonder, too. It is felt in small things (a line about how "the rose holds the summer flower in her winter sleep," for example) and through a large symbol - the arrival of a magician in the consul's waiting room.

In 1950, cynics liked to dismiss Menotti as warmed-over Puccini, a sentimentalist, a hopeless conservative. Today, he doesn't sound dated at all. He seems more like a prophet, really, for musical romanticism is the undisputed, dominant language now; atonality has become increasingly marginalized.

Menotti's frequent flights of lyrical power in "The Consul" have a visceral impact that very few 20th century composers could achieve. His flair for setting up dramatic situations through music, for underlining characters' thoughts and actions - a flair felt in scene after scene of this opera - has rarely, if ever, been surpassed.

Washington Opera's production, with its painstakingly evocative sets and costumes by Zack Brown and moody lighting by Joan Sullivan-Genthe, highlights these strengths. The opening night performance on Saturday at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater could have been even more affecting with a little more consistent vocal quality and a little subtler acting in places. But as a demonstration of what makes "The Consul" an important, durable American opera, this revival is well worth the trip.

Menotti himself provided the direction, as he did for the company's 1988 staging. He invariably gets an intense response from singers when he's in charge; there wasn't an uncommitted moment all evening on Saturday.

Some details could bear re-thinking. John Sorel, the freedom fighter whose plight sets the opera on its bleak course, stumbles in with a bad leg wound shortly after the curtain rises, but is walking about forcefully, no trace of a limp, a few minutes later. In several scenes, characters formulaically move to center stage to deliver key musical passages.

But, for the most part, Menotti's directorial hand is sure, his sense of timing astute.

As Magda Sorel, desperate for the precious visas that could take her and her family to safety, soprano Joanna Porackova offered passion and conviction. She captured the sheer rage of "To this we've come," the opera's most famous passage, and made Magda's oddly detached reaction to the death of her child quite poignant. A stridency in the upper register took a certain musical toll during the evening, though, as did a tendency to over-dramatize some lines and gestures. But hers was, nonetheless, a compelling effort.

The Secretary, the consul's coolly efficient buffer with the public, is a juicy role. Julia Anne Wolf relished the assignment, with a healthy mezzo-soprano voice and a generally polished characterization (only her exaggerated, play-to-the-balcony laughter during the phone call with a boyfriend rang false). She conveyed the character's gradual de-icing in the last act in a most telling fashion.

Kathleen Segar, as the Mother, offered a deeply nuanced performance, filling the theater with her ripe mezzo and shaping the lullaby to Magda's sickly child with exquisite finesse. Baritone Victor Benedetti was the vocally sturdy, dramatically charged John Sorel. John Marcus Bindel used his ample bass-baritone to potent effect as the Secret Police Agent and deftly conveyed the character's sliminess.

A few strained notes aside, Robert Baker made The Magician a strong musical and theatrical presence. The rest of the supporting cast also made vivid contributions.

Joel Revzen conducted with clarity, propulsion and abundant feeling. The orchestra offered generally firm, colorful work.

`The Consul'

What: Washington Opera's production of "The Consul"

Where: Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Jan. 9, 11, 17, 19, 22, 24, 26; 2:30 p.m. Jan. 7, 14

Tickets: $63 to $112

Call: 202-295-2400; 800-876-7372

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