Review: UT Opera Theatre’s ‘The Consul’

At the time Gian Carlo Menotti created his opera The Consul in 1950, American notions of bureaucracy and its practitioners were defined by deep suspicion and the fear of insidious dehumanization. By today’s standards, those attitudes were almost laughably simplistic. Our own current encounters with bureaucracy are substantially more complex, but also more ambiguous, made so by technology and anonymous data collection that has the potential of beneficial efficiency and comforting anonymity, albeit with the price tag of destructive loss of privacy.

As a result, that 1950s fear of unseen bureaucrats and mindless paper-pushers with rubber stamps and typewriters is not necessarily easy to communicate to a 2015 audience. That’s why I was so impressed with last weekend’s University of Tennessee Opera Theatre production of The Consul. Director James Marvel crafted a compelling and delicious music theatre piece that engaged the audience with a balance of reality, fantasy, and symbolism, communicated through a physical design that gave an excellent cast of student actor-singers just the right environment to tell the story with their voices.

That story is relatively simple—John Sorel is an on-the-run freedom fighter in an unnamed oppressive totalitarian country who must flee said country lest he be nabbed by the secret police. He urges his wife, Magda, to go to the consulate of an adjacent country to speak to the Consul and arrange visas for her, his mother, and their sickly child, so that they can later meet up. The consulate, though, is a place where people interface only with an officious secretary, fill out endless forms with baffling requirements, and wait—and wait—and wait. Eventually, Magda is driven to suicide in an attempt to remove the only reason for John to remain in the country—not realizing he has already been nabbed by the police. This she would know, in the finest Kafka-esque irony, if only she could answer the telephone in time.

The benefit of multiple casts in UT Opera productions is obvious: more singers get performance opportunities. While cast “A” sang the two evening performances and cast “B” sang the matinee performances, I doubt that little was intended by the groupings. Individual performances varied and both casts featured impressive singers, albeit with varying strengths and experience.

Despite being the central motivating character, the role of John Sorel is not a huge one in terms of stage time. Nevertheless, UTOT veterans Makoto Winkler and Brent Hetherington each offered a bold performance, each with his own individual energy and dramatic intention. Winkler’s baritone had distinctive clarity and power throughout, while Hetherington’s dramatic portrayal was a bit more focused and motivated.

Suffering the debilitating abuses of the State and the bureaucracy is the role of Magda Sorel, sung by sopranos Lindsey Fuson and Alexandria Shiner. Each gave engrossing dramatic performances, each shaded by gloomy determination in the face of futility. Both singers impressed with their ability to contrast the role’s softer, lyrical moments with outbursts of heated emotion. Shiner’s remarkable vocal clarity, backing up a remarkably immense and powerful voice, made her an unmistakable standout—and a singer to watch in the future.

As the Consul is seen only as a mysterious silhouette, the default face of the bureaucracy is the character of The Secretary, sung in this production by Melanie Burbules and Allison Deady. Seated at a desk facing the audience for the entirety of the office scenes, armed with pencils, papers, a typewriter, and a rubber stamp, both singers beautifully sold the role in a number of ways: lyrical coloration, voice mannerisms, body attitude, and believable stage business. (I should have known that a rubber stamp could be a marvelous rhythm and percussion instrument. Who knew that it could be an oddly sensual one as well.) In the “crisp diction” department—something vitally important in this role—both singers were remarkable, but with an edge going to Deady.

In the role of the mother, an older woman of strangely indeterminate years, was Marya Barry and Maggie Ramsey. Although the role seems to be written for a true contralto, both singers (obviously mezzos) did quite serviceable jobs. Barry was consumed by orchestra density in a few places in Act I, an issue that Ramsey managed to avoid.

James Eder, marvelously sinister and threatening, performed the role of the evil police agent in both casts. The secondary roles of “those that wait” in the consul office were all solidly sung and attractively acted: Mr. Kofner (Brandon Bell and Tyler Padgett), the foreign woman (Mia Pafumi and Noelle Harb), Anna Gomez (Kacie Kenton, Maxwell Porterfield, and Sierra Hammond), and Vera Boronel (Katlyn Householder).

The oddest role in the opera, that of the magician Nika Magadoff, was sung by tenors D.C. Miles and Michael Gonzalez. While the two singers differ in obvious stature and voice texture, they also took the role in different, but equally legitimate, comic directions. Miles’ magician was something of a good-natured fumbler, while Gonzalez gave his entertainer a slightly greasy flamboyance.

Tying the action together brilliantly was a set—designed by Blair Mielnik—best described as “detailed simplicity.” Symbolic eyes in slivered shapes watched over the basic structure, a well thought-out layout in black, white, and gray that dripped in visual metaphors. Symbolic and minimal color was inserted via props—a red telephone for example—and by lighting in selective moments of red tragedy and green and magenta psychological fantasies. Otherwise, John Horner’s marvelous lighting design was crisply monochromatic, giving the right emotional support and angular delineation for the singers. The costumes by Patti Rogers in deliciously muted grays and blacks kept the characters separate and distinct.

Conductor Kevin Class kept the pace crisp, although the contrasts in Menotti’s score—the lyricism and theatricality against the angst of dissonance—could probably have used a bit more attention and sculpting of dynamics and pacing to underline them. As a result, some orchestral textures seemed unfocused and some music moments seemed passed over.  And, dang those great acoustics in the Bijou—the orchestra overpowered singers in a number of places.

UT Opera Theatre’s next major production is Mozart’s Don Giovanni, April 15, 16, 17, again at the Bijou.