by Douglas Messerli
Gian Carlo Menotti (music and libretto) The Consul / Opera Long Beach, performed at the Centinela Valley Center for the Arts, Lawndale, California / I attended matinee on October 22, 2017 with Howard N. Fox
For several years now Opera Long Beach has been the most innovative opera company in Southern California and one of the most notable in the US. Recent productions include John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer and I Was Looking at the Ceiling, Philip Glass’ The Perfect American, Akhnaten, and Hydrogen Jukebox, David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, and Duke Ellington’s Queenie Pie, to say nothing of notable revivals of works by Purcell, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Poulenc, along with numerous other works. It is obviously run by an energetic artistic team, led by Austrian-born Andreas Mitisek, who stages many of his own productions in both Long Beach and at the Chicago Opera Theater, which he also directs.
The fact that Mitisek, himself, is an immigrant (he became a naturalized US citizen as recently as 2015) is particularly relevant in the case of the company’s newest production, The Consul, by Italian born composer Gian Carlo Menotti.
The decision to produce this opera—originally performed in Philadelphia and, then, on Broadway, in 1950 (it won both the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Music that same year)—is utterly brilliant given the current governmental administration’s emphatic determination to oust thousands of undocumented people from our shores and delimit those who might be legally allowed to enter or shores.
In the post-World War II Europe millions from all over the globe found themselves in great peril in a time of changing governments, including the Communist take-over of many Eastern European countries, shifting allegiances, along with the simple desperateness of life in countries that had suffered so much loss. Menotti’s tale was spun out of a news item about a 38-year-old immigrant Polish woman, who, when, waiting on Ellis Island, was denied entry by into the country by a special inquiry board, hung herself in a detention room.
I had previous seen the production only on a DVD-version, produced for television by Jean Dalrymple in 1960 (I missed that broadcast as a child on TV, but had often watched Menotti’s televised productions of Amahl and the Night Visitors, the Christmas-based opera, written a year after, that, over the 1950s and early 60s became an annual television favorite). The 1960 broadcast starred the original Magda Sorel (the opera’s central character), brilliantly performed by Patricia Neway. I watched most of the tape, once again, yesterday evening, after seeing this new presentation at the Centinela Valley Center for Arts in Lawndale (Opera Long Beach is determined to present their productions in a number of local venues).
As I correctly recalled, the 1960 version, as I described it in a piece I wrote in 2017 upon Menotti’s death, was “a drab, gritty, black-and-white” realist drama. Magda lived in a dreary flat and was daily forced to return to an equally dreary consulate with the hopes that someone might hear her pleas and allow her to immigrate to a foreign land to where, evidently her husband has escaped because of his activities in the local underground. She, clearly, is seeking political asylum in the country which seems impervious to her cries.
The TV version is highly dramatic in its more direct, one-on-one interchanges between Magda and the Consul Secretary (Regina Sarfaty), and the very drabness of everything seems to reiterate the noir-like aspects of her terribly fated life.
Mitisek, in his role as costume designer, his scenic designer, Alan E. Muraoka, and the lighting designer, David Jacques take a different tack, creating a world, as Muraoka describes it, from the perspective of Magda, wherein everything has become a space akin to Kafka’s nightmare landscapes. No wall seems affixed to any other, windows are dangerous things (after all, as the evil Secret Police Agent [Cedric Berry] warns Magda, you can see a great deal through a pane of glass), and the Consulate Secretary’s desk towers like a kind of expressionist tower of babel (or, to put it more succinctly, a “tower of babble”) atop which the Secretary (a marvelously dark, but also vulnerable Audrey Babcock; her later aria “Faces” demonstrates, late in the opera, her guilt in the destruction of these immigrants’ lives), hovers, making it nearly impossible to scale except for few lucky ones.
The problem is that the Consul Secretary and the “foreigners” with whom she comes in contact speak entirely different languages. As I put it in my earlier review, speaking of Magda’s and her husband’s goodbye duet early in the opera, “This couple’s sorrowful duet of departure, transformed by John Sorel’s mother’s participation into a trio,” presents us with some of the looniest lyrics ever created:
Now, O lips, say goodbye
The word must be said but the heart must not heed.
The rose holds summer in her winter sleep.
The sea gathers moonlight where ships cannot plough,
And we will the heart retain endless home…
…where time does not count, where words cannot reach.
Let no tears, no love laden tears dim the light that charts our way.
Leave the tears to the starless one who wanders
Without compass in the night.
“Despite being nearly drowned in metaphors, the audience recognizes that this is the language of believers, of the heroes Sorel and his wife represent. John’s only straightforward advice to Magda is to visit the Consul.”
But this too is a delusion. The consulate Secretary can only report to the desolate Magda (in this production, the always startling singer/performer Patricia Racette, clothed in a dark blue dress), “Your name is a number, your number a case.” “Please fill out the paperwork, bring me your documents.” Magda’s impassioned pleas—filled with outrageous metaphors—and the efficient business woman in the high tower simply cannot intersect. There is always, day after day after day, another bar to those who wait below, some unable to speak the language at all, others unable to put their powerful fears and desires into the language of the bureaucracy or even normal logic, and still others, such as The Magician (Nathan Granner), believing their remarkable talents alone should permit them entry into the magical world that is continually eluding them. No matter what these folk try to do, they might never meet the impossible requirements that those holding power demand. The Consul, himself, seems never to be within; and when, finally, in Magda’s impassioned plea for humanity which is at the heart of the opera—
To this we’ve come: that men withhold the world from men.
No ship nor shore for him who drowns at sea.
No home nor grave for him who dies on land.
To this we’ve come: that man be born a stranger upon God’s
that he be chosen with a chance for choice,
that he be hunted without the hope of refuge.
To this we’ve come, to this we’ve come
…Oh! The day will come, I know
when our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains.
Warn the Consul, Secretary, warn him.
That day neither ink or seal shall cage our souls.
That day will come, that day will come!
—she is offered an opportunity to speak with the always missing Consul, she observes the terrifying Secret Police Agent leaving his office.
Having already lost her child and her husband’s supporting Mother (the powerful singer, Victoria Livengood) to death, what does Magda possibly have left? Indeed, the opera might have ended here, at the close of the second act.
In the original production, Magda returned home to put her head into the oven. Here, once again, the artistic team have decided to present the act in much more theatrical terms—and again I cannot but admire them for their choice—to present her death in terms of the event that originally inspired the composer, a suicidal hanging, along with the hanging of nearly all those we’ve previously encountered, played out in the symbolic upending of chairs—the common symbol of home and family life.
When we think back at how the US failed so many millions of European Jews during World War II—despite the presidency of one of the most liberal of all leaders, Franklin D. Roosevelt; and when we recognize that millions more will no longer now be permitted to enter our country, we can only turn our eyes away from one of our nation’s most potent symbols, The Stature of Liberty with its poetic promise by Emma Lazarus—“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore”—and cry.
If today Menotti is often thought of as a kind of retarder composer, in league with Puccini and other late Romanticists in a century already musically transformed by Ives, Stravinsky, Berg, Cage, and so many others, perhaps it is time to rethink this mid-century composer’s art, putting them into the context of his own long-time companion Samuel Barber and friends Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein. Clearly, this Menotti opera is even more relevant today.
Los Angeles, October 23, 2017