The spirit of freedom is alive and well at the Wales Millennium Centre. WNO’s latest season started powerfully with Dead Man Walking, creating a great effect on the audience. Within only a few days, their next production followed, The Consul.
This is not a well known opera, though it was a great success at its Philadelphia premier in 1950, even going on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti knew the plight of immigration with his move to the United States, but had created a work that even now has a lot of pull. These are the timeless themes that could today be only a Twitter storm or frenzied demonstration away. It is the razor sharp suspense, as if plucked from a Hitchcock flick that makes The Consul so absorbing. Menotti, who also wrote the libretto, was not afraid to shy away from a tough subject matter along with strident, at times heavy and exhilarating music.
Brecht and Kafka are easy comparisons here. The German playwright (an opera librettist of his own for Kurt Weill) would have perhaps played on the betrayal elements from our heroine Magda Sorel, who could have confessed to the Secret Police Agent who her husband had been in cahoots with, so that she could flee. There also appears an inevitability when she screams at the Agent if he ever comes back to their house, would kill him. This satisfying outcome is never fulfilled. These changes would have taken the story on an entirely different plain. The heightened drama of why the Agent was meeting the Consul is never recognised after the fact, an undeniable game changer in plot development. The mood of Kafka comes in the setting of this nameless country, with rampant, bureaucratic drudgery, as if no one can do anything until the proper paper work has been filed. The natives have enough trouble; and you can forget a foreigner trying to get anything done. For anyone who has ever had to apply for a visa will know the feeling. You never see the actual Consul either, so that mystery can linger…
The set is unsurprisingly shared with Dead Man Walking (and no doubt for the next performance later this week), though does not always work with the claustrophobic nature seen within The Consul. The upper level is used sparingly to little effect; a desk and two dancers add nothing during certain scenes. Fitting video work by Hayley Egan utilises past photos from Holocaust archives and current laws concerning the rights of the immigrant in today’s uncertain world. Director Max Hoehn has wrung-out dramatic performances from the singers, all adding to the nail bitting tension. Conductor Justin Brown appears to relish this score, a rare and brilliant opportunity by any standard for a maestro. The orchestra of WNO delivers goosebumps throughout, featuring exciting xylophone moments and Henry Cowell-esqe tone clusters on piano in the finale; undeniably a shocking jolt to the system. The tones are brilliantly mixed in one scene of sorting paperwork with spiffy music (for a minor character who actually gets her visa), juxtaposed with the worry of John about to be caught.
Perfect singers feature here. Giselle Allen is Magda, a griping portrayal of a woman on the edge, who loses her baby, her mother-in-law and potentially her husband. The role truly comes into its own during ‘To this we’ve come’, a furious aria, here made exemplary by Allen. The red tape preventing her from resolving her woes is grilled during this deep exercise in frustration and fury. The relentless questioning asked of Magda tips her over the edge and her response cuts through the tape: ‘Occupation? Waiting’. The only applause during the opera was for this aria, proving just how vital it is to the piece. Her suicide is all the more saddening, when we know the attempts by telephone to help her. With two phones calls during the conclusion, one ponders who the other caller was.
Her husband, John Sorel is here played by Gary Griffiths. It’s a fleeting role which frames the plot (he runs off abroad for most of the story) and has some worth for Griffiths who makes the most with the material. The orchestra pit here is his hiding place from the authorities, as we see him cower in fright at how close they are to him. His Mother is Catherine Wyn-Rogers, who gets an evocative lullaby sequence for the frail baby and delivers much needed moral support in the opening act. Her-off stage death is brushed aside as if of no significance. Richard Wiegold is the Secret Police Agent, a deliciously villainous role, well suited to his rich voice. The mock boos at the curtain appear to have surprised Wiegold, but how could we resist?
Leah-Marian Jones is The Secretary, a pivotal role who controls a fair amount of the tensions felt by the other characters, as they wait in limbo to escape this cruel country they reside in. There is stony-faced sass here, channeled with a super persona by Jones, never waining, even with the forgotten bag moment passing as a plot device. Peter Hoare plays Nika Magadoff, a desperately needed bout of comic relief who attempts to use his claim to fame as an esteemed magician, to get his papers. Hoare is usually great in anything he’s in. His brief periods spent here are hugely welcome, defined in his hypnotic section where he sends all the people waiting in-line to sleep, then on their feet to gracefully dance, as if at a grand ball.
This is a near perfect production of a near perfect opera (the bizarre, Freudian dream sequence at its conclusion aside). I just know had this gone on tour, audiences would have become simply enveloped in Magda’s story. The music might have ruffled conservative feathers, but I think it found a way to be the best of both melodic, yet experimental worlds. Is this an work that should develop a place in the standard repertoire? Absolutely.
The Consul is an opera that is needed more than ever today.
Harsh and daring, a great discovery.
Welsh National Opera’s Freedom season continues with The Prisoner/Fidelio Act II on 14th June 2019 and Brundibár on 22nd June 2019 at Wales Millennium Centre. WNO’s Don Pasquale continues on tour till 13th July 2019.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson