Racette soars in Menotti’s powerful “Consul” at Chicago Opera Theater

Sun Nov 05, 2017 at 4:50 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Patricia Racette stars as Magda Sorel with Audrey Babcock as the Secretary in Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Consul" at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Liz Lauren
Patricia Racette stars as Magda Sorel with Audrey Babcock as the Secretary in Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul” at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Liz Lauren

Chicago Opera Theater opened its 45th season with Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul Saturday night at the Studebaker Theater. Yet this production, starring Patricia Racette, also marked a farewell as the final production directed by former COT artistic director Andreas Mitisek.

As recounted in previous COT coverage on this site, Mitisek’s five-year tenure leading Chicago’s alternative opera company had its ups and downs. The latter came either in presenting works with slender musical merits (Duke Ellington’s Queenie Pie, Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt, Stewart Copeland’s The Invention of Morel) or in retooling more traditional works in over-the-top, wildly revisionist stagings (The Fairy Queen, Gianni Schicchi and the infamous take on Verdi’s Joan of Arc).

But there have also been several excellent productions of rarely heard works under Mitisek: Frank Martin’s The Love Potion, Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine–in which Racette made her company debut–and Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires. And who can forget Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice, audaciously staged in and around a Park District swimming pool?

But Mitisek’s most important contribution to COT was his unswerving dedication to the cause of American opera, and it’s appropriate that his final COT effort should be Menotti’s The Consul. Homegrown works have provided some of the greatest successes of the Mitisek era, like Philip Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher and Tobias Picker’s Therese Raquin. And with this compelling and powerful revival of Menotti’s Cold War noir, Mitisek closes his COT years on a high note.

Premiered in 1950, The Consul was a box office smash for Menotti, running on Broadway for eight months and winning the Pulitzer Prize among other awards. In recent decades The Consul has fallen out of favor and these days is only fitfully revived. COT presented the opera’s belated Chicago debut in 1983, directed by the composer, and Lyric Opera followed suit in 1996. But COT’s current revival is Chicago’s first professional outing in two decades.

Mitisek’s program note and the lobby displays of personal narratives of COT musicians who came to the U.S. from other lands seem to want to tie The Consul’s scenes of waiting for a visa  to the current national debate over immigration policy; while undoubtedly well-intentioned, that emphasis misses Menotti’s larger point.

The opera’s main thrust is not about immigration policy at all—it’s about how totalitarian regimes destroy lives and how inhuman government bureaucracies threaten individual freedoms.

Far from being a dated relic of the Cold War, those themes make The Consul, if anything, more timely than ever. The Berlin Wall may have come down but a resurgent expansionist Russia is still invading sovereign countries and murdering dissidents. An unhinged maniac with nukes in North Korea is doing the same to his people and even assassinating family members abroad.

One need not travel that far to find contemporary parallels to the theme of faceless, unaccountable government bureaucracy. Just try to get an appointment to meet with your local alderman. And when was the last Chicago election when one was presented with a meaningful choice of candidates with different positions on the issues?

The Consul tells of the plight of Magda Sorel. Her husband John is a freedom fighter against the authoritarian government and is being hunted by the secret police. After John is shot and wounded, Magda visits the consul’s office to try to get visas for herself, her baby and John’s mother to leave the country. Yet in the personage of the cold, businesslike consulate Secretary, Magda–along with a group of other visa applicants–runs up against against an unending set of redundant rules, and demands for endless paperwork and documentation. With the secret police closing in, Magda explodes at the Secretary to help her. But all her efforts are in vain, John is captured and the opera ends in complete tragedy.

The Consul is not a perfect piece, with the dramatic action, bleak scenario and fantasy sequences often failing to cohere. Yet the score is one of Menotti’s finest achievements; the music always serves the dramatic narrative and reaches thrilling heights with Magda’s soaring Act 2 aria “To this we’ve come”—as stirring a libertarian statement of freedom against government oppression as one will find in the opera canon.

At this stage of her career, Patricia Racette is still an artist willing to take chances. It was hard to believe that the soprano was making her role debut as Magda Saturday night–so throughly lived-in, vivid and affecting was her performance as the desperate heroine.

Typically for Menotti, there is as much spoken dialogue as there is vocal music. Racette is one of our finest singing actresses and her subtle, credible dramatic portrayal made each additional twist of the knife into Magda’s fate manifest and almost painful to watch. Racette inexorably built Magda’s mounting frustration and explosion at the Secretary into the triumphant payoff of the big aria; sung with rich voice and complete conviction, Racette’s soaring rendition earned her an extended ovation that nearly stopped the show.

Audrey Babcock was on the same level as Magda’s nemesis, the Secretary–the consul gatekeeper whose mindless subservience to rules, forms and appointments keeps the desperate emigrants waiting forever for their visas. With crystal-clear diction and an ample mezzo voice, Babcock managed to convey both the comic and sinister side of this inflexible authority figure, while bringing plausibility to her belated moment of compassion.

Victoria Livengood—an acclaimed Secretary in this opera throughout her long career–has graduated smoothly to the role of the Mother. The veteran mezzo-soprano was dramatically effective, bringing poignance to her lullaby to Magda’s sickly child.

Company regular Justin Ryan proved well cast as John Sorel, Magda’s hunted husband, singing with a robust baritone that nicely matched Racette’s voice.

Cedric Berry was an aptly ominous Secret Agent, bringing an oily and insinuating presence to the malignant spy who is tracking the Sorels’ movements. As Assan, Zacharias Niedzwiecki brought natural acting to the role of the Sorels’ undercover associate.

The roles of the motley group of visa applicants were well taken by a supporting cast that included several COT regulars. Kyle Knapp’s vivid Nika Magaloff provided one of the few light moments of the evening as the magician who hypnotizes the other applicants, to the discomfiture of the Secretary.  Vince Wallace brought a deep bass-baritone and gentle humanity to Mr. Kofner, and Kira Dills-Desurra as Vera Boronel was amusing in her paper-signing duet with the Secretary. Kimberly E. Jones was a rather unsubtle Foreign Woman and Lani Stait an effective Anna Gomez.

Mitisek’s traditional production was largely successful and respectful of Menotti’s opera. The one jarring exception came with the director electing to tweak the tragic final denouement. [Spoiler Alert to the following]

Mitisek altered the method of Magda’s suicide from putting her head in an oven to hanging herself. Yet that change appeared somewhat fudged opening night either because it would have been too graphic or just too difficult to stage technically. Whatever the case, the result was just confused and ambiguous—lacking the bitter sting of the opera’s true ending, where the Secretary’s phone call that might have saved Magda rings on and on unanswered as she dies. Note to opera directors: If you don’t have a better solution to a problematic scene, you should probably go with what’s already in the libretto.

Apart from that muddled retooling, Mitisek’s production was refreshingly noninterventionist, avoiding the theatrical revisionism of many of the director’s past efforts. The spoken dialogue was handled well by the entire cast; put across with a natural rhythm and clarity, the conversations and rapid exchanges created a taut dramatic tension like a great night in the theater.

Alan Muraoka’s cost-effective scenic design got the job done with a spare wall and set for the Sorels’ apartment, which is turned around to become the high walls of the consulate office. Having the Secretary and her desk placed at a lofty height towering over the visa applicants was an obvious signal of powerful authority, but made a striking visual–especially when the desk descends as she begins to reveal some humanity for the applicants. David Martin Jacques’ lighting was imaginative and atmospheric, the menacing shadows on the walls enhancing the opera’s noir-ish milieu.

Conductor Kristof van Grysperre provided impressive direction of this challenging score.  One would have ideally liked a larger string complement than the small pit allows, but the Belgian conductor balanced his forces with great skill, eliciting transparent textures, keeping strong dramatic momentum for the long first half (Acts 1 and 2), and ensuring that the big climaxes made bracing musical impact.

The Consul will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. November 12. cot.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Racette soars in Menotti’s powerful “Consul” at Chicago Opera Theater”

  1. Posted Nov 11, 2017 at 12:12 am by Larry Lapidus

    Patricia Racette sang quite well and her riveting acting brought Magda totally to life. It was hard to tell this was a debut role for her. The rest of the cast was excellent. It’s an opera everyone should experience particularly with today’s political climate.

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