Chicago Opera Theater Deifies the Normality of Indifference
On one hand, sitting interminably in a waiting room seems like too mundane an act to fuel an opera, let alone one in which people cry “give us the earth and make us free!” and that the thread of their fates “dances on a diamond edge.” On the other hand, when you think about the kinds of life-changing events that people are confined to waiting rooms during, it makes perfect sense to use that sort of language. Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Music, now in a new co-production by Chicago Opera Theater and Long Beach Opera, was written to tear the cover of apathy and normality off the inhumanity of bureaucratic institutions and especially refugee laws. It’s a story about frustration and bears the challenges that come with that, but in the relatively intimate Studebaker Theater, we’re able to form a close bond with the protagonist, Magda Sorel, played by the subtle, yet regal soprano Patricia Racette.
People Abandoned by the World
In an unnamed totalitarian country, Magda’s husband, John (Justin Ryan) comes home bloodied one day after the secret police broke up a meeting of his resistance cell. Realizing it is impossible for them to stay, John declares his intention to sneak into another country that had backed him, or at least, he had been led to believe was sympathetic, while Magda obtains visas for herself, their infant son, and John’s mother (Victoria Livengood) at that country’s consulate.
It’s easier said than done: the secret police (in the form of a dapper slimeball played by bass-baritone Cedric Berry) are on to them and easily frustrate Magda’s attempts to obtain documents for the other country’s byzantine immigration process. Furthermore, her hopes are dashed when the consul’s secretary (Audrey Babcock) is entirely unsympathetic and refuses to even let her see the consul to plead the urgency of her case. Trapped in a life-sucking process, Magda is left to nurse the remnants of her doomed family while enduring further harassment by the police and fearing that John will attempt to return, putting himself in worse danger.
Kristof Van Grysperre’s Conducting Backs Up Singing Actors
The Consul was Menotti’s first full-length opera, and it displays an influence from movie soundtracks. Only very rarely does the music interrupt the story, and an intentionally-annoying earworm played at the beginning of a few scenes are the only instances in which the emotional tone seems to be coming from it instead of the actors. A trio between the Sorels, “Now, o lips, say goodbye” is when the mournful, contemplative, but steely score becomes fully developed following some early spoken exchanges, and is also when the extreme, verging on purple, lyrics become evident. But the orchestra, conducted by Kristof Van Grysperre, supports the actors in perfect emotional synchronicity as they vow to deaden themselves and go through the motions of daily life despite their anxiety.
Excellent, Memorable Performances by Racette and Babcock
Director Andreas Mitisek, Chicago Opera Theater’s former artistic director, has Magda in an attractive blue dress which contrasts with the generally washed-out palette of her surroundings. In the same way, Racette characterizes Magda as possessing an idealism mostly alien to the cruelty and desperation she is constantly confronted with. This is not to say that Magda is naïve—far from it—but that she maintains an expectation of fairness and sense of outrage when it is disappointed that challenges the halls of the consulate as effectively as anything can.
During the show’s centerpiece, “To this we’ve come” she protests the system in a rousing anthem that lets lose all the feelings she’s had to keep suppressed to avoid suspicion and recrimination. But she has an intimidating foil in Babcock’s secretary, an officious state organ with horned rimmed glasses and fierce rouge who somehow manages to seem both mechanical and slightly vulgar. Her voice is as pointed as her appearance.
In her defense, the secretary is made to put up with some very weird things, and a scene with Kyle Knapp playing the magician Nika Magadoff injects some much-needed comedy into the proceedings. It follows a lullaby by Livengood as the mother which is one of the few places where the lyrics are a fitting match for the music. There are also a few moments, mostly near the end, when Mitisek, scenic designer Alan E. Muraoka, and lighting designer David Martin Jacques switch to surrealism, and it was when we were taken inside Magda’s head that the show was most affecting. The Consul is an unusually low-key opera, and in some ways presaged Waiting for Godot. Chances to see it are rare and it’s worth experiencing.
The Studebaker Theater
410 S Michigan Ave, Chicago
November 10 at 7:30 pm
November 12 at 7:30 pm
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.
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