Depending on whom you talk to, Gian Carlo Menotti embodies either everything that’s right or everything that’s wrong with American opera. Composer, librettist, director, and impresario Menotti has been pitched as an underappreciated genius and as an overrated mediocrity; as a savior who returned 20th-century opera to its melodic roots and as a dinosaur wedded to an outmoded, neo-Puccinian style of writing; as a composer whose greatness owes a lot to his understanding of theater and as a savvy theater man who uses his modest musical skills to cobble together effective entertainments.
Washington Opera’s current revival of his 1950 political thriller, The Consul, sets Menotti’s strengths and weaknesses in pretty bold relief. Topping the plus column is The Consul’s can’t-fail plot, involving the futile attempts of one Magda Sorel to secure a safe passage out of an (unspecified) police state behind the Iron Curtain for herself, her infant child, and her fugitive, freedom-fighting husband, John. As in any good tragedy, there’s an impressive pile of bodies by story’s endnone of the characters I’ve mentioned survive, and John’s careworn old mom is a goner, too. The delicious twist here is that Bureaucracy (symbolized by a poker-faced, power-tripping consulate secretary) is their executioner. The endless waiting in line, the sea of forms to fill out, the consul who, Godotlike, never appears are all so many nails driven inexorably into the characters’ coffins. The Cold War trappings may be yesterday’s news, but Washington is built on foundations of file folders and paper clips. Local audiences are sure to feel Magda’s pain in a big way.
Menotti’s librettowell, a large part of it, at leaststands as one of his most eloquent. Again and again, the emotional life of the characters is expressed with economical poetry that finds fresh ways of stating age-old truths and lands gracefully on the ears. Magda’s arias in particular transform the mundane frustrations of the consular waiting room and the terrors of police intimidation into simple, heartfelt songs that retain the specificity necessary to the narrative but find a universality that carries them beyond the confines of this opera.
But when tensions mount or characters are thrust into danger, Menotti kicks into overdrive and leaves taste behind. Suddenly his words become clunky, prosaic, and impossibly clichédthe police inspector’s “We have strange ways to make people talk” is a howlerand the music in these passages follows suit, conjuring a world of low-rent espionage flicks and early TV cop shows. But the music under more contemplative arias and ensembles is quite restrained and lovely, with melodic writing that, if not the last word in memorability, leaves a glow with the listener.
In his best moments here, Menotti composes in the neo-Puccinian vein of The Medium and The Saint of Bleecker Street (which, with The Consul, constitute the pinnacle of his operatic writing) but toughens things up a bit. Imagine Kurt Weill writing Puccini-style verismo for a Broadway audienceand throwing in the occasional jolt of Bernstein (Leonard or Elmer)and you’ll have an idea of The Consul’s sound-world. Of course, all those composers wrote with more consistent inspiration and more distinctive personalities. But Menotti has always been a master amalgamator, and he knows which styles to borrow from to tell his stories.
Surprisingly, the diciest element in this production is Menotti’s stage direction. For all the beautifully observed behavioral details Menotti touches inthe quiet bewilderment and listless body language of the visa applicants, ever-present in that consular waiting room, are rendered with a sure hand and tellingly individualizedhe can’t resist overfreighting the moments of his score that already spill over into melodramatic excess. The lighter touch that characterized Menotti’s celebrated WashOp production of La Bohème is nowhere to be found. (And, if memory serves, the company’s last mounting of The Consul, also under the composer’s direction, wasn’t quite this hokey.)
To take but one example: When the hotly pursued John Sorel makes his way home to hide, and the police are expected at the door within minutes, Menotti has Magda and John’s mother clean up the telltale signs of his presence to avoid suspicion. Now, you’d think that these women, living in a perpetual state of oppression and paranoia, would move through this ritual of concealment with speed, thoroughness, and economy of movement. Not here. At Menotti’s end of the Eastern bloc, people stop in the middle of an urgent operation such as this to put their hands to their cheeks and shake their heads sadly over the unsightly mess on the floor, then hunch over the dining table with much comically conspiratorial eye-rolling and over-the-shoulder glances while awaiting the cops. Those cops then spring into the room like the Spanish Inquisition in a Monty Python sketch, and on it goes. Again, the production is full of lovely, powerful, and restrained scenes. But there are enough of these breast-beating Pagliacci moments to cheapen the effect of the good stuff.
The cast is generally strong vocally, and their actingfollowing Menotti’s promptsis a toss-up between eloquent and embarrassing. Magda is the linchpin role, and soprano Joanna Porackova makes a fine meal of “To This We’ve Come,” arguably the composer’s finest dramatic aria. But she’s not a strong or nuanced enough actress to transcend the production’s riper excesses, and her voice turns hard and hollow whenever pressure is applied. And Kathleen Segar brings a rich mezzo to the role of John’s mother, but she’s prone to big face-acting.
John Marcus Bindel would’ve made a swell comic heavy on, say, Get Smartand, once again, any silliness in his performance lies squarely at the feet of librettist-director Menottibut his dark, forceful sound is just right for the Secret Police Agent. Even if Victor Benedetti’s John is a bit glum and thick-voiced, he at least admirably underplays. The Secretary is the trickiest part to get right, written as a flinty, robotic sadist in Act 1 and as a caring soul with a soft, chewy center in Act 2. Julia Anne Wolf can’t resist sledgehammering the smugness early on, but she’s actually quite credible and moving when the Secretary’s composure crumbles during John’s arrest at the consulate. There are also fine singing and refreshingly subtle acting from the ensemble of mostly hometown singers, including Herbert Eckhoff, Randa Rouweyha, Robert Baker, Barbara McAlister, Austin Bitner, and Mary Gresock.
Conductor Joel Revzen, an old hand at this score, keeps the musical storytelling cogent in the pit, and Zack Brown’s sets and costumes boast so much painstakingly researched detail that the rooms created onstage look as if they’d been lifted from real locations and set down in the Eisenhower Theater. All this in support of a pretty mixed bag of an opera. But even if Menotti can’t keep his weepy effusion in check on paper or onstage, he’s still written a fairly decent piece and given it what can only be called an authentic production. By Menotti’s own standards, The Consul avoids the insufferable cutesiness of his Amahl and the Night Visitors, The Old Maid and the Thief, and The Telephone, and aims for something loftier. As 20th-century operas go, The Consul is no Porgy and Bess, no Wozzeck, no Peter Grimes, no Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, but it can hold its head up in the company of Susannah and Baby Doe. Menottiwho turns 90 this yearis a lifelong defender of the pretty, the uncomplicated, and the reactionary in opera, and he’s obviously determined to serve up The Consul exactly the way he envisioned it a half-century ago.
And why not? We should probably all feel lucky to experience it. But this current production does raise a question: When Menotti is no longer around to proselytize for his operas and stage them within an inch of their lives, are we still going to want to produce them? CP