A very well-defined and powerfully staged melodrama.
First produced in 1950, Giancarlo Menotti's "Broadway opera" The Consul has stood, with its predecessor, The Medium, as his most enduring work of lyric theater. They are recurrent favorites among student opera companies. The UW Opera production of The Consul looks back to one that Karlos Moser did early in his career as director of the university's program.
The opera's story of the hounding to death of the Sorel family by the forces of an oppressive police state, though it was inspired by the early years of the Cold War, transcends any dating, as does the struggle of the heroine, Magda Sorel, against the mindless bureaucracy of a consular office from which she desperately, and hopelessly, seeks a lifesaving visa. So no "concepts" or transplantings were needed for such a work, and director William Farlow has created a very well-defined and powerfully staged melodrama out of the work. (The shift of Magda's ultimate suicide from asphyxiation in an oven to opening veins might trouble purists but is accommodated easily.) The spare set, designed by Michelle Fields, quickly shifted back and forth to serve two very different settings in the modest spaces of the Old Music Hall auditorium, where the opera opened on Friday.
Since I attended the middle performance of the three, that on Sunday, April 17, I caught the second team in the double-casting of five of the 11 roles. But I felt no loss of quality as a consequence, certainly not in the singing. Amy Sheffer was stolid but moving in her turn as the mother, while Lindsay Sessing, in her one opportunity at the role of Magda, displayed a terrific soprano voice and good dramatic sense. Of those who have been cast for all three performances, Emily Campbell was able to capture both the steely and then the compassionate dimensions of the secretary to the consul (who never appears), and Benjamin Li was elegantly sinister as the secret police agent. Among the secondary roles, J. Adam Shelton brought a fine tenor flamboyance as the magician, while Karen Bishop was compelling in her vignette as the petitioner Anna Gomez.
Since this is a work in English to begin with, the usual surtitles were dispensed with. I am not sure that proved a good idea. Many opera houses use them even in English-language productions. All the singers involved devoted great care to their diction. To be sure, Yohan Kim, with a fine baritone voice, had accent problems as petitioner Mr. Kofner. But higher voice ranges inevitably bring a blurring of words, even for singers with fine verbal sensitivity -- especially the case with the vocally splendid Sessing.
James Smith labored bravely in the orchestra pit with Menotti's sometimes lovely, sometimes scrappy instrumental writing, though there was some overwhelming of the singers at times early on. Nevertheless, the whole production was generally as satisfying musically as it was theatrically.
A strong credit to the UW Opera company, then, and to the array of really talented young singers the UW Music School can attract. The final performance of the production can still be caught on the evening of Tuesday, April 19 at the Rennebohm Auditorium, Music Hall, on the UW campus.