The Setup: This weekend the Moores School of Music presents its third production of Gian Carlo Menotti's Cold War-era The Consul. The opera, which is set in an unnamed European city, is about the oppression of government, and what happens when the hopes of a people are reduced to case numbers and bureaucratic paperwork. Menotti recalls the horrors of the Stalin regime through the persecution of a family of innocents and its matriarch, Magda Sorel.
The Execution: One of the production's most striking features is Thom Guthrie's observant set design. The Sorel's apartment is convincingly arranged in Eastern Bloc minimalism, with every piece of furniture and every innocuous household object a testament to unvarnished utilitarianism. There is no superfluous item, no hint of excess. The Sorels, like the rest of their neighbors, live in domestic leanness in an apartment so spare, it's almost hostile. The Consul's office is also appropriately void of humanity. Drenched in blinding light, the white walls and the endless lines of drawers bring to mind the sterility of a hospital, another place of high volume human traffic, and another place that often lacks the element of humanity. These two environments are so alive in their coldness, they're practically antagonists.
The cast is in fine form, particularly Gwendolyn Alfred as Magda Sorel. Alfred convincingly conveys the hopelessness of Magda's plight, as well as her frustration with the system that has brought her family to ruin. Her stunning aria in the second scene of Act Two is highlight.
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But because the players are all on their game, the libretto's weaker elements become a bit too obvious. For the life of me, I don't know what to make of the Nika Magadoff character, a famous magician who is also on the Consul's waiting list for an exit visa. He's a bizarre choice for the Angel of Death, and the fantasy elements that he induces tap into the world of musical theater, but certainly not for the better. These sequences provide beats of visual and lyrical humor, but I'm not sure they're needed. Rather than underscoring the tragic elements, they undermine them, diminishing the potency of Magda's desperation.
Speaking of potency, the orchestra gives the music a firm, foreboding pulse. But maybe too firm, at times. In Act One, there were moments where I felt the music overpowers the voices onstage, but that's a minor sidestep in a production that is largely successful in recreating the ominous tone of Menotti's opera.
The Verdict: What makes The Consul such an enduring work is that it is about government, bureaucracy and the people that these two entities are meant to serve. In the Twentieth century, and into the Twenty-first, it has become clear that the first two forces do not necessarily work for the good of the third. Magda's story is so powerful because it is so recognizable. What we learn from her tragic end are not the lessons of history books, but the truths of our very own reality. Are we really more than a folder of documents filed away in a cabinet somewhere, a case number for uncaring eyes to review and deliberate on? It's hard to say, and that inability to answer in either the affirmative or the negative is the precise source of The Consul's terror.
The Consul has another performance today, January 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Moores Opera House. For information, visit www.uh.edu/class/music/.