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|A CurtainUp Berkshire OperaReview
It's been almost fifty years since Gian Carlo Menotti's first full-length opera The Consul opened not at an opera house but in Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater. It was an event worthy of a double review by The New York Times, then opera critic Olin Downes and its drama critic Brooks Atkinson. Critics and audiences alike were enthralled by its powerful combination of melodic score and heartbreaking story (inspired by a newspaper story about a Polish immigrant who committed suicide after failing to break through the red tape of gaining entry to the United States). It ran for 269 performances and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Circle Critics' Award.
Last Thursday's opening night performance of The Berkshire Opera Company's The Consul proved it to be as enthralling as ever -- for this critic, (wearing a double hat since our opera specialist, David Lipfert is in New York), and the highly enthusiastic audience. At a time when more and more directors and set designers regularly shuttle between opera and theater, this work by an opera composer who has long been in the mainstream seems an especially fitting choice for The Berkshire Opera Company's first fully staged production of the season. It works as musical theater. It works as opera -- not melodic in the sense that a Verdi or Mozart opera is melodic, but not atonal even in its more dissonant arias and duets. Above all, it remains a gripping work of art, especially as here staged and cast production.
Starring as Magda Sorel, the tragic but determined young wife of a freedom fighter in a nameless European police state, soprano Beverly O'Regan Thiele displayed as much dramatic flair as vocal power. Her show-stopping second act solo, "To This We Come," is enough reason in itself to make opera lovers want to buy the company's soon to be available (first ever) Consul recording. Baritone Michael Chioldi, was also in fine voice and dramatically impressive as her fugitive husband, as was contralto Joyce Castle. She added great vocal and character strength to the role of the mother. Her lullaby to her grandchild and her anguish when she discovers the child's death is at once heart-wrenching and magnificent.
The gatekeeper of the immigration consul's office, Emily Golden, brings great familiarity and distinction to the role. (She portrayed the secretary with the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Washington Opera and in a production directed by Menotti in Monte Carlo). She moved with ease from the personification of the unfeeling bureaucrat to a woman whose mournful "Oh those faces" clearly revealed the heart squeezed by the faces she must pretend not to see each day. The stories behind these faces were played and sung with equal style by Magda's fellow immigrants, one of whom, a magician ( tenor David Congelosi), was Menotti's instrument for bringing some comic relief to the overall grimness. Congelosi captured this comic persona admirably, managing to give great authenticity to his sleight-of-hand tricks. His magician was in bright contrast to bass-baritone John Cheek's marvelously malevolent Secret Police Agent.
There's yet another character of sorts: David P. Gordon's metaphoric design, lit in an appropriately dark mood by Eric Cornwell. The sparsely furnished Sorel's walkup apartment metamorphoses into the chilling atmosphere of the consulate waiting room by means of towering flats of file cabinets. The period ic rotation from set to set is as smooth and seamless as any choreography I've seen. And those skyscraper-like file cabinets filled with forms without which nothing can be done make a powerful graphic statement.
Director Mary Duncan and conductor Joel Revzen and his Camerata New York Orchestra deserve much kudos for adding this musical theater treat to the Berkshire's already overflowing cultural basket. If you can't make this very limited run, be sure to mark your calendar for the next in line, production, The Magic Flute (starting August 22nd).