Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution would not sweep the island nation for another decade, but Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1950 opera still manages to strike a nerve decades later in Miami, a city of refugees.
Menotti’s opera, set in an unidentified European totalitarian country, is the story of a desperate young mother, Magda Sorel, who seeks a visa to join her dissident husband, John, who escaped across the frontier to freedom in America after being wounded by the police in a raid. She is hounded by the secret police and frustrated by the bureaucracy she encounters in the consulate.
On Broadway, shows almost always have to have a happy ending. In opera, tragedy is also an acceptable outcome. Fortunately, after losing her child and mother-in-law, Magda gets the fateful call from the consul just as she is about to stick her head in the oven. Tragedy averted, earning Menotti Pulitzer and Drama Critics’ Circle awards.
Unlike so many 20th century operas, women’s roles dominate “The Consul,” and the Florida Grand Opera cast on Sunday afternoon proved up to the task: soprano Kara Shay Thomson (Magda), contralto Victoria Livengood (The Mother), mezzo Carla Jablonski (The Secretary) and Hailey Clark (The Voice). Livengood, with her sonorous voice, proved to be a standout, as was the dramatic prowess of Thomson.
As John Sorel, baritone Keith Phares, proves to be the true “hero, a lover of freedom” Magda so fervently wants to be reunited with.
Menotti is best known as the composer of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” the first opera composed specifically for television. “The Consul,” an earlier work is not as melodic and accessible as the works of Menotti’s classical and romantic predecessors or even his contemporary Leonard Bernstein.
His orchestrations are reminiscent of his partner in life and work, composer Samuel Barber (“Medea,” “School for Scandal,” “Adagio for Strings”). The rich, powerful score is most dramatic during the orchestral passages and the FGO orchestra, under the baton of Andrew Bisantz, aggressively tackled the challenge, with standout performances from the horns and double reeds throughout.
The scenery from the Seattle Opera is most effective in the scenes in the consulate, as giant filing cabinets tower over the stage, punctuating the bureaucratic hurdles Magda must navigate if she is to rejoin her husband. The first act closes with a brilliantly written exchange between the officious secretary and Magda: “Your name is a number, your story is a case.”
Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s dour costumes, constructed in Miami by FGO, perfectly accentuate the bleak setting.
If only there were a way to include vintage American automobiles on the stage, then the comparison to Castro’s communist Cuba would be complete.
Florida Grand Opera repeats the performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul” on Friday, May 15 and Saturday, May 16 at the Arsht Center in Miami. For tickets, go to ArshtCenter.org.