Third Eye Theatre calls it a wrap with Menotti’s powerful “Consul” 

Mon Oct 02, 2023 at 2:40 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mary Lutz Govertsen as Magda Sorel in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul presented by Third Eye Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Clint Funk

Nine years ago on a sleety, blustery Halloween night Third Eye Theatre Ensemble debuted with an outstanding performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium.

The company’s founders have decided to shutter Third Eye in this, its tenth season, closing one of Chicago’s leading storefront opera troupes. For their final show, Third Eye is ringing down the curtain with another Menotti opera, The Consul, heard Sunday afternoon at the Edge Theatre. There are four more performances through October 8.

Amid the handful of small opera groups in Chicago, Third Eye distinguished itself by its often discerning repertoire choices, quality acting and ability to present dramatic and effective performances with limited means. Third Eye’s chosen themes often dealt with spiritual struggles and presented a humanistic message without partisan vitriol or divisive polemics.

Among the company’s shows have been Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, Sumeida’s Song by Mohammed Fairouz, Daniel Crozier’s With Blood, With Ink, Paula Kimper’s Patience and Sarah, and, others, most recently Han Lash’s Beowulf.

The company is going out in a big way with Menotti’s The Consul. Premiered on Broadway in 1950 to wide acclaim, The Consul takes place in an unidentified totalitarian country where several citizens are trying to get a visa to leave the country. Among them is Magda Sorel, whose husband John is a member of an anti-government resistance group and is being followed by the secret police. Magda’s attempts to escape with John, his mother, and their baby are continually stymied by the bureaucracy at the consulate where the secretary keeps her and others waiting with continual demands for more paperwork, leading to tragic results.

Despite the dark scenario, the score is cast in Menotti’s terse yet lyrical style and rises to characteristically expansive heights, as with the Act I trio and Magda’s celebrated breakout aria. “To this we’ve come.”

The Consul has been getting something of a belated revival in recent years, deservedly so as one of the finest American operas of the last century with themes that remain sadly relevant. These days, the opera is often pitched as dealing with “immigration” issues, which is missing the main point. Composed at the height of the Cold War, The Consul is in reality a rallying cry for individual freedom and a timely broadside against repressive authoritarian regimes that spy on their own citizens, imprison political opponents, and drive dissenters to despair and suicide. It can’t happen here.

As is the company’s tradition, The Consul is being presented with two alternating casts.

Leading Sunday’s excellent lineup was Mary Lutz Govertsen who delivered a terrific performance as Magda. The singer richly communicated the sense of a woman on the edge, concerned for her family’s safety and desperate to escape and get out of the country. She conveyed Magda’s mounting frustration with the consulate bureaucracy as embodied by the Secretary and her unrelenting demand for more documents.

Govertsen’s formidable soprano made powerful impact in the intimate venue, soaring in the Act I trio. Magda’s Act II showpiece aria was thrilling in Govertsen’s dramatic and big-voiced rendition. (Though this was one moment in the performance where one missed Menotti’s sumptuous orchestra.) 

Noah Gartner as John Sorel and Mary Lutz Govertsen as Magda in The Consul. Photo: Clint Funk

Melissa Arning was comparably excellent as Magda’s nemesis, the Secretary. The mezzo-soprano embodied the role of the crisply efficient bureaucratic drone who thinks she is helping people when she is really destroying their lives. Arning made the Secretary’s belated bit of humanity register when she tries to help John and Magda, alas too late.

Noah Gartner was most impressive as John Sorel. A superb actor, Gartner was wholly believable as Magda’s injured anti-government husband trying to evade the secret police. His ample baritone blended gratefully with Govertsen’s soprano in the Act I duet and trio.

Jennifer L. Barrett was a somewhat younger Mother than usual in this role but proved a characterful presence, playing with her grandchild and singing her Act II lullaby with feeling.

The motley group of citizens waiting to get their papers approved were well taken by a superb supporting cast. 

Vincent McPherson proved especially impressive as The Magician, Nika Magadoff. The young tenor has a charismatic stage presence and made his engaging spotlight scene—one of the few light moments in a predominantly grim story— a standout moment. 

Also notable were the deep-voiced Lifan Deng, doubling as Mr. Kofner and the odious Secret Agent, Tracey Furling as the Foreign Woman, and Samuel Varghese as Magda’s resistance ally. The cast was filled out with Alexandra Kassouf as Anna Gomez and Evita Cervoni as Vera Boronel. 

The production was largely effective in the company’s usual cost-efficient style with a few hits and misses.

The staging was done with functional sets and in contemporary dress—which would be fine but the too-casual costuming gave the visual impression of a rehearsal, as if the actors were just wearing their own comfortable clothes from home. Rose Freeman, the company’s longtime stage director, did a resourceful job as usual, moving the large cast efficiently and making the spectral dream sequences appropriately creepy.

There were a couple debits. The ringing muted cell phone sounded more like a distant fog horn and didn’t have the dramatic impact it should at the end of the opera. Also the opening song on a crackly LP was run on a loop as the audience filed in, as well as during the first intermission; the needle scratch went from annoying to water torture after being repeated a dozen times or more.

Conductor Alexandra Enyart kept the performance on track with attentive, flexible direction, clear cueing of the cast, and an idiomatic feel for Menotti’s score, allowing space for the big set pieces to make their impact. Music director Jason Carlson provided sensitive and powerful piano playing as required that supported the drama, and only occasionally made one miss the sweep of Menotti’s rich orchestration.

The Consul will be repeated with alternating casts 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

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