Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Gertrude Opera gives Menotti's The Consul perfected pedestal-piece punch

It's almost 70 years since Gian Carlo Menotti's first full length opera, The Consul, premiered in New York in 1950 and it still resonates with power and freshness in a world increasingly divided by fear. As composer and librettist, Menotti based the story of The Consul on a 1947 newspaper report about the suicide of a Polish emigrant after being refused a visa to the USA.

Karen Van Spall, Linda Thompson as Magda Sorel and Michael Lampard
Three years ago, with limited resources at its disposal, Melbourne's Gertrude Opera presented a compelling case for the work's modern-day relevance in a production bolstered by Theresa Borg's incisive direction. In a revival of Menotti's "...nightmare thriller of an opera", with its striking, richly characterised and expertly sung portrayal, director Greg Carroll has achieved the same splendid results, punching home the desperation for survival, change and betterment in the face of oppression on one side and bureaucratic processes on the other. Poignantly, it also reflects the hardline political crackdown and inhospitable treatment and scrutiny of refugees seeking asylum in our own backyard. When little support and no answers are given, we too become responsible for the tragic outcomes.

This time, the work is performed in Gertrude Opera's current temporary warehouse-style lodgings to an audience of around 80. The setting easily matches its successful presentation at Fortyfivedownstairs in 2014, with fine balance and firm resonance of sound pleasurably filling the space.

Characterised by its woven mix of dissonance and melody, angst and delicacy, Menotti's music easily drives the narrative forward without overpowering it. With only Peter Baker's expert and dexterous grand piano accompaniment to set the musical framework, conductor Rick Prakhoff's unflinching attention to drawing out shape and texture paid satisfying dividends on opening night.

On a low black platform, two rudimentary chairs, a stove/cabinet, a tall bookcase and a stepladder form the sparsely furnished stage with a backdrop featuring a translucent plastic curtain, behind which non-performing cast members rest in character. The late Peter Corrigan’s scant set design is an evocative interpretation of the impoverished circumstances in which Magda Sorel, wife of her political freedom fighting husband John, his mother and her infant child live. With a quick turn of the stove and a secretary presiding from a tall bookcase of papers, the platform doubles as the consulate office waiting room of grey-faced visa applicants. Greg Carroll’s lighting design adds atmosphere and mystery while well-delineated costumes dress hard, unsophisticated times in this drab, unidentifiable European police state.

Leading by example, Artistic Director and assured, wide-ranging soprano, Linda Thompson, reprises the role of Magda Sorel - one she makes so heartfelt - moving with urgency, determination and stealth as Magda deals with a withering home, persistent police and an indifferent consul secretary in her quest for a visa for her family to leave. Culminating in a time-stopping and magnificently haunting "To This We've Come", in which she sings with dour pain and defiance after being refused permission to see the consul once again, Thompson stamped her mark indelibly on the performance.

D. Carroll, J. Erdelyi-Gotz, J. Dufour, J. Wasley and B. De Poi
As her husband John, Eugene Raggio returns with greatly improved physical acting that effortlessly ricochets off his fraught situation and utilises his attractively dusky baritone impressively. In a richly layered and focussed performance, Karen Van Spall is magnetic as John's salt-of-the-earth Mother as she relentlessly clutches her stricken grandchild. Rumbling baritone Michael Lampard's cold and automatic brutality as the Secret Police adds greatly to the festering tension. Rose Nolan gives stellar, deeply carved mezzo-soprano richness and emphatic angular diction to her pursed-lipped Secretary. Light comedy brings momentary relief to the waiting visa applicants courtesy of Jason Wasley's robust-voiced and entertaining Persian-costumed Magician.

The 2017 Gertrude Opera Studio Artists filled the smaller roles glowingly with Darcy Carroll's steadfast baritone having notable impact as the kindly Mr Kofner along with luscious soprano Juliet Dufour's patient but weary Anna Gomez. Joshua Erdelyi-Gotz's Assan, Lisa Parker's Foreign Woman and Brigette De Poi's Vera Boronel complete the ensemble of 11, all contributing drama and meaning to this superb and chilling work.

Never underestimate the power hand-to-mouth opera delivers. Gertrude Opera's current season of The Consul reaches pedestal perfection. I only wish those patrons of large-scale opera could take a detour to experience it.

Gertrude Opera
130 Dryburgh Street, North Melbourne
Until 2nd June

Production Photos: Lyz Turner-Clark 

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