Although it is not so frequently performed today, Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul was immensely popular when it was first performed in 1950. It was so successful, in fact, that, following an initial appearance in Philadelphia, it went on to run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City for nearly eight months. Given the date of composition, the opera seems to be partially inspired by the Soviet Union and its recent takeover of Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, it is deliberately set in an unidentified European totalitarian country to emphasise the universality of its themes, which are ones that happen to feel particularly pertinent today.
The story concerns the political dissident John Sorel who is on the run from the Secret Police, and decides to escape over the border for both his and the entire resistance movement’s safety. He instructs his wife Magda to go to the Consul to obtain visas for herself, their child and his mother to leave the country. He promises he will wait at the border and not cross it until he knows they are safe.
When Magda goes to the Consulate, however, she discovers that the application process is ridiculously bureaucratic, and that she is simply one of many people waiting there day after day in the hope of something materialising. She pleads that she is a special case because the Secret Police are after her husband, and asks to see the Consul for help. The Secretary at the Consulate, after treating everyone coolly, finally relents and says she may do so as soon as his current appointment has ended. When, however, Magda sees the Secret Police Agent walking out of the Consul’s office and realises that they are in collusion she sees how cornered she is.
By this time John’s mother and child have died, and Magda fears that John may try to return to her, which would put both him and the entire resistance movement in danger. She therefore sends a note to him, presumably telling him that she is about to commit suicide, to deter him from coming back. John does, however, return and is taken by the Secret Police. He asks to make a phone call, and when the Secret Police refuse his request the Secretary of the Consulate feels compassion and makes it for him. Magda, however, gasses herself at home so that when the telephone rings no-one answers.
Menotti’s opera is quite an astonishing creation in which key moments, such as when Magda sees the Secret Police Agent exit the Consul’s office, are accompanied by music that sounds cinematographic as if it were highlighting a moment of revelation in a Hitchcock film. It also reveals many fears and anxieties that other works from the early and mid-twentieth century explore, and in this respect seems reminiscent of Shostakovich’s The Nose. It may not feel quite as absurd in tone, as a greater degree of the story could be accepted literally, but it is surreal in the sense that it does involve dream sequences and a routine in which everyone at the Consulate is hypnotised into dancing. The piece also seems Kafka-esque as it brings The Trial to mind. This is partly because John’s crimes are never made clear, although it could be argued that this is because their specific nature is unimportant whereas in The Trial Joseph K.’s own ignorance as to what they are is fundamental to the story. However, the notion of ‘bureaucracy gone mad’ as people applying for visas must fulfil numerous criteria and fill in never ending forms, while the staff prove dismissive and uncaring, seems very familiar.
It also feels like Nineteen Eighty-Four as Magda and John believe that ‘Big Brother’ is constantly watching them, and the entire system seems stacked against them when it transpires that the Consul and Secret Police Agent are in collusion. This production from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, directed by Stephen Medcalf, also emphasises this aspect through the staging. A free standing set on one side shows John and Magda’s house and then spins around to reveal the Consulate. On the other side, however, sit all of the cast members. They largely represent the people waiting in the Consulate but are joined by others including the Secret Police Agent. This emphasises how no-one can escape the State’s prying eyes, and aids the drama by allowing the Agent to be present in an instant by simply having him rise out of the masses. The fact that the chairs the people sit on are accompanied by numerous others stacked high against the back wall also emphasises the huge number of people subjected to this type of treatment, and hence how every individual can easily be dismissed as being just one of thousands.
The staging also aids many of the opera’s sub-texts. One of the secret communications between John’s allies and Magda involves a man delivering a pane of glass to her to replace a broken window. Magda then holds it up as the Secret Police Agent stares at her through it declaring that glass is so transparent. Similarly, as the people in the Consulate lament the state of the world the clock on the wall spins around to reveal the hours and days they are left waiting there. The orchestra, conducted by Timothy Redmond, plays extremely well, while the cast, which includes Jake Muffett as John, Christian Valle as the Secret Police Agent, Emily Kyte as the Secretary of the Consulate, Chloe Latchmore as John’s mother and Eduard Mas Bacardit as the magician Nika Magadoff, is excellent. The standout performance, however, comes from Michelle Alexander as Magda. The manner in which she reveals both strength of mind and vulnerability while displaying a soprano that is as rich as it is impassioned makes for an absolutely show stealing performance.
Casts vary over the run. For full details visit the Guildhall School of Music and Drama website.