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Originally published Sunday, February 16, 2014 at 6:16 AM

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5 things to know about Seattle Opera’s ‘The Consul’

Seattle Opera will stage Gian Carlo Menotti’s thriller “The Consul” for the first time beginning Feb. 22, 2014. Here’s a primer to help you prepare before you go.


Seattle Times theater critic

OPERA PREVIEW

‘The Consul’

By Gian Carlo Menotti. Seattle Opera production, opens Saturday, Feb. 22, seven performances through Friday, March 7, McCaw Hall, Seattle; tickets start at $25 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org)

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Before he was 40, Gian Carlo Menotti had conquered Broadway.

A 1946 double bill of the rising Italian composer-librettist’s short works, “The Medium” and “The Telephone” was that very rare phenom: a hit opera production on the Great White Way.

Other triumphs were soon to follow for Menotti, whose accessible operas often pleased the public (even when critics were less impressed).

In 1951, his Nativity tale “Amahl and the Night Visitors” debuted, and soon became a holiday family favorite on stage and national TV.

But the year before “Amahl” made its splash, the prolific Menotti achieved acclaim again on Broadway for another piece.

“The Consul,” his first full-length opera, stood in sharp contrast to his shorter works. A piercing tragedy with Kafkaesque political overtones, it addressed the universal plight of stateless refugees from repressive regimes.

Bestowed with both a 1950 Pulitzer Prize and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical, the opera ran at Ethel Barrymore Theatre for 269 performances. (Compare that to the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” debut Broadway run, which was half as long.)

Yet on the eve of the Seattle Opera’s first airing of “The Consul,” mounted under the direction of Peter Kazaras, most Seattle audience members will be seeing the work for the first time.

Here then, is a basic primer on “The Consul”:

The story: In an unidentified totalitarian country, sometime in the mid-20th century, a dissident named John Sorel comes home injured after a violent fracas with police. His wife, Magda, fends off the authorities, and John goes into hiding, instructing Magda to secure visas for the family to flee from further persecution.

At a foreign consulate, Magda undertakes the soul-crushing bureaucratic quest to get travel documents. As she waits and waits in the office of the all-powerful Consul, others are pressing their own urgent need to emigrate on the Consul’s secretary.

As time passes, Magda’s child falls ill. Her husband urges her to join him soon. But the opera ends with a stroke of dark irony.

Why Seattle Opera is presenting it now: According to general manager Speight Jenkins, “The Consul” is “both opera theater and a theatrical opera. It is a play with gripping music, tuneful, memorable, and expressive.”

He also chose it because he found a lead soprano with the right combination of personality and voice in former Seattle Opera Young Artist Marcy Stonikas, who earlier sang Turandot. Stonikas “absolutely fit with the major character of Magda Sorel ,” Jenkins says. “She’s as critical to this opera as Violetta is to Verdi’s ‘La Traviata.’ ”

Jenkins also wanted to continue his practice of offering “one opera in a season not given before by Seattle Opera so as to broaden our regular audience’s experience.” And he disputes any notion that “The Consul” is “dated” or “melodramatic.”

“In many countries of the world people are desperate to get visas to leave,” Jenkins emphasizes. “Those who fight for freedom of expression, whether political, sexual or for any other reason, often find themselves persecuted and forbidden to leave.”

Another theme he points to as current: “The tyranny of bureaucracy ... in all areas of modern life, large and small corporations, academia, and every level of government.”

The backstory: Two incidents during World War II helped to fuel Menotti’s desire to dramatize the refugee issue. In one case, a group of Austrians seeking refuge in nearby Hungary were trapped for a week on a bridge between the two nations, because they lacked the documents to emigrate.

In another episode, a Polish woman fled with her daughter to the U.S. but was denied entry because her former husband, an American resident, agreed to take in their child but refused to sponsor her. After surrendering her daughter, she committed suicide at Ellis Island.

While the unfortunate Polish mother was an inspiration for the character of Magda, the supporting role of Anna in “The Consul” was inspired by another desperate émigré: a European woman Menotti met on a flight from Italy to New York, who was extremely distress and lacking proper immigration papers as she faced U.S. customs officials. He never found out what became of her.

The historical context: When “The Consul” came to Broadway in 1950, Menotti’s libretto was timely indeed, despite its allegorical vagueness about date and setting. In World War II, millions of refugees fled European fascism. Later, debates raged over whether the U.S. and other countries did all they could to shelter Jews trying to escape the Holocaust.

And in the late 1940s, droves of Eastern Europeans fled Stalinist oppression in the growing Soviet bloc — like the Soviet “show trials” which were designed to purge Hungary and other countries of dissidents. (Magda is a common name in Hungary, the Czech Republic and other nations in the region.)

The music and production: Conducted here by Carlo Montanaro, “The Consul” is “basically a verismo opera very much in the Puccini tradition,” notes Jenkins.

The three-act piece employs a relatively small orchestra. The score features the “brittle” sound of the piano, and contains the noted aria “To this we’ve come (Papers!).”

Menotti’s libretto is in English, with supertitles. Also featured in the cast are Dana Pundt (who will appear in next season’s “Semele”) as Anna, and Michael Todd Simpson (Marcello in this season’s “La Boheme”) as John Sorel. Alternating in the role of Magda with Stonikas in the silver cast is soprano Vira Slywotzky.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com



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