Opera New Jersey’s production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul” transforms a grim situation into a dramatic torrent that provokes questions about love, freedom, devotion, heroism, and compassion. Once again ONJ’s habitual marriage of artistic excellence to superb stagecraft produces a taut vehicle. Design team, performers, and backstage personnel collaborate to create an integrated performance that is more than the sum of its parts.
The versatility and skill of singers and instrumentalists displays an emotional range that runs from stridency to softness. Conductor Joel Revzen oversees music where shrillness and solace play off against each other. Director Michael Unger lays bare the tumultuous emotional world that seethes below the lives of characters with constricted choices. Although the opera was sung in English, titles projected above the stage helped keep track of the words.
The central character in the piece is Magda Sorel (Lina Tetriani), wife of John Sorel (Nicholas Palleson), a dissident who flees from the authorities of a totalitarian regime. He will wait at the border until Magda obtains the visas necessary for the couple, their baby, and John’s mother (Joyce Castle) to leave the country.
The action shifts between the Sorels’ apartment and the consular office, where applicants for visas assemble day after day to present the required host of forms, papers, certificates, proofs of identity, and affidavits. The secretary (Audrey Babcock) sits in front of a fortress of file cabinets. “Seas go dry and suns grow cold, but all the documents must be signed,” she sings.
Shifts between apartment and consulate are accomplished through sleekly choreographed movements in semi-darkness by members of the ensemble. Michael Schweikardt is the scenic designer. Choreographer Jennifer Paulson Lee clearly plays a part in the changes of location. She is also responsible for the sequence of surreal dancing at the consular office.
The dramatic peak of the work comes after Magda’s second act aria, “To This We’ve Come.” Promised admission to the consul as soon as his present visitor leaves, Magda sees that the visitor is a secret police agent. Realizing that the foreign diplomat and the totalitarian authorities collude, she collapses. The audience on Saturday, July 16, interrupted the performance by an extended ovation for Tetriani’s impassioned “Magda”; the applause could not be stifled.
Costume designer Patricia Hibbert provides Magda with plain costumes. Her ordinary appearance makes her inner strength all the more noticeable. Dressed in a serviceable plaid dress at home or an undistinguished beige outfit at the consulate, Magda evades glamour. For one who has seen the svelte Tetriani in real life in her little black dress, her Magda is a remarkable visual contrast.
In the course of the opera, the horror of life under totalitarianism is magnified into two nightmare scenes that unleash grotesque distortions of Magda’s fears. The terror is amplified by the lighting effects of designer Ken Yunker. Yunker also gives visible form to the toxic fumes of the gas stove, which kill Magda, by ascending waves of pale blue light.
Within the somber boundaries of his musical drama Menotti finds room for varying moods. The love of Mother Sorel (Castle) for her grandchild softens the bleak circumstances of their situation. Castle is a warm and tender grandmother.
Menotti’s magician, Nika Magadoff (Jason Ferrante), relieves the yearning of visa applicants for matters to be other than what they are. He, alone, is able to subvert the single-mindedness of bureaucracy. Under normal circumstances, his tricks would be entertaining. He makes a bouquet of flowers appear from nowhere; he finds water for them in a folded newspaper; he causes scarves to multiply; he makes the visa applicants dance. Ferrante’s deft execution brings diversion and irony to the consular office.
From the tragedy of a freedom-minded advocate in a totalitarian country, Menotti fashioned a work that won both a Pulitzer Prize for music and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award during its long run on Broadway in 1950. Viewed 60 years after its opening, “The Consul” raises questions anew.
Here are some of the things I am pondering after the ONJ performance. A line early in the work observes, “To be courageous is often a selfish thing.” Maybe overt courage is a species of self-aggrandizement.
Magda asserts at one point, “My name is woman.” Perhaps she is lauding a womanly tendency to be more empathetic and clear-headed than her hero husband.
What about Magda’s suicide? Is it an ultimate act of loyalty to her husband? Is it the result of despondency? Is it a universal warning against totalitarianism?
ONJ’s “The Consul” is a must-see. In the short-run, it makes for a stimulating theatrical evening. In the long-run it raises profound questions about relationships, life, and politics.
“The Consul,” Opera New Jersey, McCarter’s Matthews Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Sunday, July 24, 2 p.m. New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra accompanies the production. $20 plus. 609-799-7700 or www.operanj.org.