By Gian Carlo Menotti
Presented by West Bay Opera
At the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA; 650-424-9999
Conducted by Henry Mollicone
Directed by Jonathon Field

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Although Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul premiered in 1950 during the Cold War, it feels relevant today. It also is a gripping musical drama, as seen in the West Bay Opera production perceptively staged by Jonathon Field and conducted by Henry Mollicone. Menotti's three-act work, written in English and accompanied by supertitles, is set in an unnamed European country with an oppressive regime. A young freedom fighter, John Sorel, must flee the country, leaving behind his wife, Magda; mother and sickly infant son.

The action focuses on Magda's efforts to get a visa to join John in another country. Getting a visa requires daily visits to its consulate, where Magda and a handful of other desperate souls confront barriers of indifference and endless paper work. Those barriers are personified by the consul's secretary. She repulses all efforts to speak to the consul, who is never directly seen. Magda's problems are compounded by the secret police, who hound her for the names of John's associates. As Magda's problems mount, so does her desperation, resulting in tragedy.

The Consul requires performers who can not only master Menotti's music but also act well enough to convey the work's passion and drama. The reviewed WBO cast (some roles are double-cast) fills the bill on both parts, delivering gripping performances both musically and dramatically.

As Magda, soprano Jillian Khuner (alternating with Kathryn Hunter) portrays a simple woman whose primary devotion is to her husband and family. She's not political, yet she is vulnerable to political forces that force her along unknown, dangerous paths. Khuner is especially powerful in Magda's dream in her apartment and later her emotional outburst at the consulate, both in Act 2.

As Mother, mezzo-soprano Debra Lambert (alternating with Michelle Manzell) is marvelous. Her character provides emotional support for John and Magda and speaks up to the intrusive secret police agent, but she succumbs to age and poor health. In Act 2 she sings the baby a sweet lullaby that's one of the show's emotional, musical highlights.

The Secretary is portrayed by mezzo-soprano Elspeth Franks (alternating with Emily Stern) with just the right touch of cool detachment that eventually is worn away by Magda's plight -- but too late. It's another outstanding performance. Although baritone Martin Philip as John plays a role that's secondary to the three women, he makes a strong impression. His singing is fluid, his acting convincing. Bass-baritone James Brown lends a sinister presence and solid voice to the Secret Police Agent.

Magda's fellow supplicants at the consulate are well-played by baritone Michael Morris, sopranos Amy McKenzie and Ellen St. Thomas, and contralto Dianne M. Terp. Tenor Ross Halper is effective as the amusing yet pathetic magician. Baritone Otak Jump completes the cast as the glass cutter who brings Magda news of John.

Director Field, who paces and blocks the action so well, has outstanding design collaborators. Jean-François Revon's set design is especially intriguing. When first seen, the Sorels' gray apartment is sparsely furnished with a series of receding doors in back. In subsequent scenes, various set pieces are stripped away until at last only a door, the stove and a telephone are left. The consulate design seats the petitioners on high-backed wooden benches along one side while the secretary sits opposite them behind a desk with neat piles of paper and manual typewriter. The space between them is a symbolic gulf leading to an upstage low wooden railing, another barrier, protecting the door to the consul's office. Further complementing this outstanding production are Richard W. Battle's late '40s costumes, Steven B. Mannshardt's mood-setting lighting and Jack E. Wilkinson's subtle sound design.

For more information, see the West Bay Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:53 PST