Los Angeles Opera Review: THE CONSUL (Long Beach Opera in Lawndale, The South Bay)

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by Tony Frankel on October 17, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


After witnessing Long Beach Opera’s extraordinarily satisfying production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, starring the magnificent Patricia Racette, I find it shocking that this dramatic opera has not become part of the standard repertoire. There may be one simple reason. When this Pulitzer Prize-winner opened on Broadway in 1950, its official designation by producers was that of “a musical drama,” a subtitle which probably helped propel a run of 269 performances, a staggering number given that sung-through shows (including 1935’s Porgy and Bess) usually flopped financially, and brandings like “musical” usually stick. Another reason may be elitism: The Consul isn’t really Grand Opera—it has a relatively small cast, only three acts, and a minor amount of dialogue.

Considering our modern diaspora and immigration problems, Menotti’s first full-length opera is not just timely, but a punch in the solar plexus of fascism and totalitarianism. A thirty-something couple—John a freedom fighter, Magda a housewife—live in squalor with their sickly baby and her mother. They desperately want out of this unnamed country, a pseudo-European police state, and his political dissidence has made him an outlaw. John escapes to the border, and Magda is forced to sit at a consulate day after mind-numbing day trying to get an exit visa, but bureaucracy and a pernicious government agent conspire against our protagonist until she realizes there is no way out.

This proficiently plotted story is vividly theatrical, made almost propagandistic by Alan E. Muraoka’s dazzling German Expressionist scenic design—angular in dirty, pallid greens and greys; the desk of the consul’s Secretary elevates until she towers some 20 feet over the players, heightening the impact that something like a visa can be so close yet so out of reach. David Jacques’ film noir lighting design incorporates fluorescent tubing and melodramatic shadows, no doubt accomplished with the vision of director Andreas Mitisek, who could have moved his players even more on the large stage at the South Bay’s fairly new 1200-seat Centinela Valley Center for the Arts.

Patricia Racette was born for the role of Magda (opposed to, say, her 15-year-old Madama Butterfly); she projects not just that famous towering soprano but fear and strength of conviction. It’s always thrilling to see a perfect match of actress and role, and her evolution from nervousness to optimism to suicidal despondency is handled with obdurate authenticity. Magda is on stage most of the performance, and her aria at the end of Act I, “To This We’ve Come” is incredibly demanding (an intermission comes after the first two acts in this production).

There are similarly remarkable performances from Audrey Babcock as the complicit, dutiful, sensitive consular Secretary; Zeffen Quinn Hollis as both a frustrated asylum-seeker and a freedom fighter go-between; Nathan Granner as an out-of-work Magician who tries to console the Secretary with his tricks (one of the only light moments in this room of gloom); Victoria Livengood, whose flexible mezzo-soprano managed a remarkably deep register for the distraught Mother; Bass-Baritone Cedric Berry, deliciously evil as the Secret Police Agent; and a powerful Justin Ryan as John (Ryan played Walt Disney in Philip Glass’s opera, The Perfect American, earlier this year). Jamie Chamberlin, Lara Ryan, and Kira Dills-DeSurra play more visa chasers. Every role is cast flawlessly, a rarity in opera.

Menotti (whose one-act, The Medium, opens soon from Pacific Opera Project) writes music that has an unusual discordant singsong in the narrative passages and valiant, creative orchestration in the dramatic movements (conducted with beautiful urgency by Kristof Van Grysperre). Yet not once does his work alienate like so much of today’s new opera. He is neither excessively modern nor reverential to old opera, so while not one aria will stick, this work never feels pretentious. A remarkable accomplishment.

The opening night audience was woefully small, and there are some technical snafus which will no doubt be fixed for the final two not-to-be-missed performances (Chicago Opera Theater offers this same production November 4-12, 2017). This is suspenseful theater that is both grand and intimate, discussing the world of the past, present and future. It’s artistically and politically stunning.

photos by Keith Ian Polakoff

The Consul
Long Beach Opera
in English with English supertitles
Centinela Valley Center for the Arts
14901 S. Inglewood Ave in Lawndale (The South Bay)
ends on October 22, 2017
for tickets, call 562.470.SING (7464) or visit Long Beach Opera

then plays Chicago November 4-12, 2017
for tickets, call 312.704.8414 or visit Chicago Opera Theater

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