Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul is a really good opera, a really, really good piece of theater (deservedly winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1950), and a perfectly, terribly relevant story about today. Before I sat down to write this, I looked at the paper: The death toll in Kiev had reached 82; in Venezuela, where students and middle-class citizens are protesting President Maduro, 10 people are dead and more than a hundred are injured; in Syria, more than half a million people have been displaced. This opera, as my date remarked halfway through, is about DPs—displaced persons.
Menotti is probably most well-known as the creator of Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera ever written for TV. Unlike most composers of opera, Menotti also wrote libretti; he directed the premiere of The Consul. The music is sometimes lush, melodic, pop-Puccini-esque; at other times, it's somber, spare, relentless. The story is that of Magda Sorel (the fantastically talented soprano Marcy Stonikas, an alumna of Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program who has sung both Turandot and Fidelio for Seattle Opera). Magda's underground, freedom-fighter husband, John (a hunkily torso-revealing Michael Todd Simpson), is pursued by a gang of nasty, gun-wielding men in black. (And fedoras—the perfect mid-century costumes are by Melanie Taylor Burges.)
Magda appeals to the consulate for papers to allow her, her child, and her mother (an emotionally nuanced Lucille Beer) to join her husband when he is forced to leave the country, but is given the bureaucratic runaround by the Secretary (a sizzling then broken Sarah Larsen). The Secretary demands would-be emigrants to sign a lot of papers, then sign them again, then sign them again in triplicate, then sign them again in another paper size, then get them notarized, then whatever, ad nauseam and ad-crazy-and-despair-making-infinitum. Magda and her fellow would-be emigrants (a slew of other SOYA alumni including Margaret Gawrysiak, Alex Mansoori, Deborah Nansteel, and Dana Pundt) keep showing up at the consulate every day in hope; they end up mostly dejected. This opera is also about despair—political and personal—and how you try to keep fighting against it, to do what you think might help or what you're asked, to try and try. The magician Nika Magadoff (the particularly bright and physically agile Mansoori) tries to charm the Secretary into granting the papers he needs. Mr. Kofner (Colin Ramsey, who recently wowed as Collatinus in Vespertine's production of The Rape of Lucretia) tries to follow the rules, even when he is taken advantage of, even when he is being ignored. Ramsey's earnestness as a true believer is shattering.
The Consul is also about the desperate things you might do when you've lost almost everything you love and have no hope, except maybe a hope that if you can lose one more thing, which doesn't mean much by itself anymore, something good might come of loss. Seattle Opera has been coy about revealing the end of this seldom-seen opera, so I won't be a spoiler here, except to say two words: Sylvia Plath.
The lighting, sets, and props work well together to create what has often been called a "Kafkaesque" sense of powerlessness and entrapment. The walls of John and Madga's spare apartment spin around to become huge metal filing cabinets in the Secretary's office, the red cloth that cuts off the light from the baby's crib is later employed by Magda when she wants to rest, a single bulb swings from the ceiling to make the room look dank, a bunch of guns always threaten to fire, you always feel tense.
Magda's tragedy is that she lives in a state that, though once maybe made to serve the common good, has devolved into a brutal regime more interested in preserving its brutal self than serving its people. I wish The Consul were not as relevant as it is.