Rave review for The Consul!

Consul cast equal to challenge
Oatway ate show-stopping solo alive

Magda (Judith Oatway) confronts the Secret Police Agent (Greg Wagland) in Menotti’s The Consul. The Consul will be performed July 28 and 31 and Aug. 2 in the Dunn Theatre at 7:30 p.m. The opera has two casts with different singers on July 28 and Aug. 1.

I have to say at the start that Gian-Carlo Menotti is not one of my favourite composers. Especially in versions of his operas that, for want of funds, have to be accompanied by piano rather than orchestra. His orchestrations add a dimension to his music that softens its angularity and rounds off its sharper corners.

However, pianist Tara Morton, the musical director of Halifax Summer Opera Workshop, whose production of Menotti’s The Consul opened in the Dunn Theatre Friday night, is a first-rate accompanist. Her tempos are alert, her playing bold and ideally clear, her contribution not just important but indispensable.

The story is a mix of 20th century paranoia and bitterness at the heartlessness of bureaucracy. . Magda Sorel’s husband John, an outspoken critic of a middle-European totalitarian regime, is shot while running from the police. He hides out in the mountains, but refuses to cross the frontier until Magda, his infant son, and his mother can leave with him.

But Magda’s attempts to get exit visas are frustrated by bureaucracy in the person of The Secretary. Magda goes to see the consul, supposedly the American consul, but The Secretary’s often repeated refrain is he is too busy, come back tomorrow.

Magda and John’s baby is ill and needs medical attention outside the country. In any case, he dies before the end of the first act. Heartbroken and filled with anxiety, Magda waits to see the consul, implores the Secretary, and dreads that John will come back and be arrested and charged with treason.

The closest Magda gets to The Consul is an assurance that she can see him as soon as his important guest leaves. The guest turns out to be the head of the secret police.

Menotti is a master of dramatic effect. There are at least three show-stopping musical set pieces in The Consul. The first is an intense, forceful trio full of angst and passion sung by Magda, John and the Mother. The second is the Mother’s lullaby to the dying child, sung effectively by Oriana Dunlop.

The third is Magda’s well-known second act aria, To This We’ve Come. Soprano Judith Oatway ate this one alive, creating the opera’s most powerful moment with the intensity and force of her passion.

John, who is the most important person in the Sorel family, is not the focus of the opera, but Alfred Stockwell plays the character with the right amount of focus and intention.

Katie Stevenson as The Secretary is the opera’s most hateful character in the long run. She is cold as ice, immaculately dressed and as beautiful as Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen. Yet, as the opera continues Stevenson introduces a faint trace of compassion which deepens her character memorably.

The opera, unquestionably, is melodramatic. It is both pot-boiler and hanky-wringer, shamelessly drawing out its heart-breaking moments, of which there are many.

Menotti also introduces an element of the surreal in the second act, by way of the character of Magadoff, a magician and hypnotist. Frustrated with being ignored by the Secretary after trotting out his best magical party tricks, he avenges his feelings of rejection, a parody of Magda’s, by hypnotizing all the people in the Consul’s waiting room and making them dance a waltz with phantom partners.

Even as you try to puzzle out what this scene is doing here, you realize that it is a plant, a preparation for the shamelessly melodramatic ending. At this point, Magda has just turned on the gas and put her head in the oven and we understand she is hallucinating in the moments before she dies.

All the characters from the waiting room return to take part in the final chorus, which of course is the blatantly transparent reason for the introduction of Magadoff in the second act.

Sure enough, Magda hears the telephone ringing and dies trying to reach it. We know from the previous scene that it is the Secretary calling to tell her that John had been caught in the Consul’s waiting room and been taken off by police..

It is not spoiling anything to tell you this, since it is all covered in the synopsis of the printed program.

Bottom line: this is a very good student production of a melodramatic score, made topical by the U.S. Homeland Security Act.

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