Welsh National Opera 2018-19 Review: The Consul
Menotti’s Message Echoes Down The YearsBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Johan Perrson)
Following the end of the Second World War, Europe experienced huge population movements as the displaced peoples throughout the continent sought refuge from its ravages and its aftermath. Some were stateless, others fled retribution, while many from Eastern Europe wanted to escape the Russian occupation and its imposition of the communist dream. All were refugees seeking a new land in which to make their home, all needed other countries to open their borders. It was against this background that Gian Carlo Menotti premiered his opera, “The Consul,” in 1950: a work about one family’s attempt to find sanctuary in a neighboring country, safe from the abuses of the totalitarian State from which they needed to escape.
It thus made an ideal opera for Welsh National Opera’s “Freedom” season, dedicated to the subject of human rights, in which one of its specific areas of focus was the current refugee problem.
Different Time, Same Modern Themes
What is so surprising about Menotti’s opera is not that it tackles a subject that has once again, almost 70 years later, become a major issue as the populations of poorer countries attempt to gain access to richer countries, ostensibly to escape war and persecution, but that the arguments and sentiments uttered by refugees and social commentators have largely remained unchanged.
Again and again we can read lines in the libretto that could have been written today, such as, “No ship nor shore for him who drowns at sea. No home nor grave for him who dies on land” or “Must we all die because there are too many of us?” Moreover, the opera tackles another issue which directly relates to the plight of refugees, but not only so, namely legalism and bureaucracy. In what amounts to almost Kafkaesque scenes, we watch Magda Sorel’s attempts to navigate her way through an unresponsive bureaucratic labyrinth, in which hour upon hour, day upon day is wasted in queues, form filling and pleading to an official who is unable to respond. When Magda tells the secretary, “My life is in danger… …our house has been turned into a trap for my husband, my child and I are the bait” the secretary responds coldly, “I don’t see how we can help you.” Responding to one woman, with no documents, who has been in a concentration camp for three years, whose husband is imprisoned, somewhere unknown, the secretary says “I don’t see what we can do for you.”
Into this mix of misery, Menotti introduces a magician, whose presence in the consulate waiting room, not only introduces a change of mood, but after having performed a number of tricks, provokes a response from the secretary which perfectly captures absurdity of the entire situation, “Where do you think you are? In a circus?” Of course the secretary, herself, fails to see the true significance of her own words.
A Claustrophobic Reading
Like “Dead Man Walking” this was a semi-staged production, and equally well presented. The director, Max Hoehn, and his team comprising, scenographer, Misty Buckley, costumes, April Dalton and lighting designer, Mark Jonathan, produced a claustrophobic reading which caught the all-pervasive oppressive atmosphere which hung over the daily lives of the population, as well as the individual fears and frustrations of the those seeking a visa from the consulate. Although props were simple, consisting of no more than few lines of chairs and a desk for the secretary, the settings, which were thus fairly basic, did not lack the necessary impact.
Hoehn elicited some fine acting performances, in which the emotional tensions and frustrations, as well as the interminable periods of boredom of sitting in a waiting room, were clearly developed. He also gave careful consideration to the positioning of the cast, so that the ensemble pieces did not unduly highlight the role of Magda Sorel, who slipped into a secondary position, ensuring that her importance was not overplayed; she remains just a number, like everyone else.
If the scenes set in Magda’s house were not as powerfully worked as the those in the consulate waiting room, they were not unsuccessful. The arrival and presence of the Secret Police Agent always had the necessary level of threat and malice, and Magda’s relationship with John’s mother and the death of her baby were sensitively managed. The scenes involving her husband, John, were less effective, in which the staging did not really support his role, so that his entrances and exits were often awkwardly played.
The Main Star
The soprano, Giselle Allen, played the lead role of Magda Sorel, a character who is subject to many pressures from many directions. She is desperately trying to protect her husband, who is being hunted by the authorities; she is questioned and threatened by the secret police, she has a baby who is very ill, that eventually dies; she given no clarity, no hope and no sympathy by the consulate, so that eventually her courage and stamina drain away from her. In the final scene she turns on the gas, while in the background the phone rings, with news from the consulate, but it is too late!
Allen produced a stunning acting-singing performance, full of passion and emotional intensity. Her phrasing was always closely aligned to her emotional state, which was nuanced and detailed, full of color, dynamic shadings and subtle and not so subtle inflections. The voice was powerful and secure and the words clearly articulated. It was a portrayal in which she gave form to her inner pain and suffering, her growing frustrations and increasing anxiety. It was a dominant performance, and it is a testament to the quality of the cast that they were not to be overshadowed.
In the role of the Consulate Secretary was the mezzo-soprano, Leah-Marian Jones. She gave a steely, rigid and dry performance, one devoid of any emotional connection with the visitors who crowd the waiting room, except of course irritation, when they start to complain or disrupt her routine. Her unresponsive manner was magnified by sharp physical features and her formal grey two-piece suit. She delivered her lines with pinpoint accuracy, the voice precise, clean and hard, with a uncompromising edge to it. Towards the end, she cracks, her suppressed sympathy emerges in the monologue, “All those faces, all those faces!” the voice now enveloped by her own frustrations and feelings, and brought real depth to what would have been an otherwise flat character.
The mezzo-soprano, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, was parted in the role of John Sorel’s mother. She gave a convincing and sympathetic performance, in what was a warm, and at times, feisty portrayal. She has the good fortune to sing the attractive, easy-on-the-ear song “I will find for you shells and stars,” as she sits over the baby, who has just fallen to sleep. Wyn-Rogers gave pleasing rendition, although maybe it missed a little sweetness, as she instead opted to focus on the expression of its sentiments, which allowed her to show off her warm, maleable and endearing voice.
Gary Griffiths essayed the role of, Magda’s husband, John Sorel. He gave an energetic and vibrant performance. His baritone has a pleasing timbre, although at times he lacked the necessary projection to complement the other singers. This was especially notable in the duet, which becomes a trio, “Now, O lips, say goodbye” at the end of scene one, in which Magda and his Mother bid him farewell, as he seeks to cross the border; Wyn-Rogers and Allen’s voices shone clearly, whilst Griffiths’ contribution went by almost unheard.
Richard Wiegold playing the role of the Secret Police Agent was roundly booed at the end of the performance. This was not, however, to show displeasure with his singing or acting, but rather a show of appreciation for his convincing portrayal, which was founded upon menace and fear. He has an authoritative bass, clearly articulates his lines, and sings with power and purpose. His appearances were always an unpleasant experience, and he deserved his reception.
Nika Magadoff, the magician, was played by the tenor Peter Hoare, who gave an excellent account of himself. He was confident, lively and amusing, with a strong stage presence. He has an attractive timbre and used his voice skillfully to develop the character. His quick-fire patter was convincingly delivered.
The other minor roles were all undertaken successfully. The bass-baritone, Daniel Grice as Mr. Kofner projected his voice well, and developed his character effectively. Freya Holliman sang the part of the Italian speaking Foreign Woman. Her music has more than a hint of Puccini, and was nicely suited to her voice. The soprano, Chanae Curtis, as Anna Gomez made brief, but notable contributions, possessing a fresh and attractive voice. Themba Mvula as Assam, John Sorel’s contact, acted out and sang the part with confidence, whilst the mezzo-soprano, Sophie Dicks, as Vera Boronel put in a very good performance, her voice displaying warmth and a clear focus.
The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, under the baton of Justin Brown, was in good form, producing a reading which had a vibrant forward momentum, closely allied to the dramatic picture, and paid careful attention to detail and dynamic contrasts. A pleasing balance between all sections of the orchestra and the singers was maintained throughout.
This was an excellent choice for Welsh National Opera’s “Freedom” season. It had so much to say about the plight of the migrant, about their stories, the troubles they face, and the bureaucratic nightmare into which they inevitably become entangled, yet its tone was never hectoring or preaching. It was a story in its own right; the politics were always present, but kept subservient to the drama. Even Hoehn’s use video projections of quotations of international laws relating to refugees, which could so easily have appeared to be crude propaganda, worked well in providing a legal context.