Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul is one of the great American operas of the 20th century. The 1950 tale of a political dissident and his family’s desperate attempt to escape a totalitarian country where they are constantly hunted by the secret police is a product of the Cold War era. Yet the libretto speaks of people’s yearning for freedom when trapped in any oppressive dictatorship at any time.
Florida Grand Opera gave The Consul its belated South Florida premiere Saturday night at the Arsht Center, in a production that was an unmitigated triumph. With gripping staging, an exceptional cast and splendid musical direction, Menotti’s opera still packs a wallop more than six decades after its initial Broadway run.
John Sorel, part of a dissident political faction, is wounded by the police and plans an escape across the frontier. He instructs his wife, Magda, to obtain a visa from the consulate of a neighboring country and join him in crossing the border. Magda repeatedly runs into bureaucratic red tape. Eventually, the entire family is defeated by the evil denizens of the state.
Menotti has imbued this powerful story with a score that mixes sweeping lyricism in the verismo manner with moments of acerbic dissonance, yet always propels the drama forward.
From top to bottom, the cast is close to perfect. Magda Sorel demands a singing actress with extraordinary musical and dramatic gifts. Kara Shay Thomson is riveting, commanding the stage in every scene. Voicing her pleas in a radiant soprano with a laser-like edge at the top, Thomson was the embodiment of a compassionate woman caught in a web of heartless regulation. Appropriately, her Act II aria To This We’ve Come was the high point of the evening, a heartrending outpouring of emotion and harbinger of the tragedy to come.
As John’s mother, veteran mezzo Victoria Livengood also gave a standout performance. Her deep sonority and strong low register showed impressively in a moving and emotional rendering of the monologue Shall We Ever See the End of All This? Whether playful with Magda’s ill child or anguished at Magda and John’s predicament, Livengood turned what could easily be a cameo role into a major protagonist.
Although his stage time is brief, in many ways the opera revolves around the plight of John Sorel. Keith Phares’ rich lyric baritone, perfect diction and fierce declamation infused his every appearance with dramatic impact.
The role of the consulate secretary, the embodiment of endless rules and regulations, is difficult to bring off. Carla Jablonski was properly cold and terse, her phrasing clipped in dagger-like bursts. Near the conclusion, as she reflected on the repetitive array of visa applicants, Jablonski displayed a wide range of vocal colors and gave a human face to a role that can be a mere stereotype.
Tyler Simpson was aptly frightening as the Secret Police Agent, and securely navigated the low bass line. The character of the magician Nika Magadoff breaks the tension in one of the scenes at the consulate with a vivacious operetta interlude. Jason Ferrante dazzled in this vignette, dancing around the stage while doing magic tricks and hypnotizing everyone in the room, his agile character tenor light and well projected.
In smaller roles, Rebecca Henriques as concentration camp survivor Anna Gomez and Betsy Diaz as the Foreign Woman offered vivid characterizations. Kristin Scott, Chance Eakin, Isaac Bray and, especially, Hailey Clark impressively filled out the large cast.
David P. Gordon’s imposing sets from the Seattle Opera, Kevin G. Mynatt’s eerie lighting and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s stark costumes helped create and sustain the oppressive atmosphere. Julie Maykowski’s staging delivered the theatrical power and tension, with Magda’s final hallucination a dark dance macabre.
Andrew Bisantz conducted a taut performance, capturing Menotti’s rich vein of melody and drawing gorgeous playing from the orchestral strings and winds. Lovers of opera and great music theater should not miss this production of an American classic, which stands as one of Florida Grand Opera’s finest achievements.
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