- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2001

Gian Carlo Menotti is the kind of composer today's musicologists, academics and critics love to hate.

A success with the public in his heyday — roughly 1945 to 1970 — Mr. Menotti has made a good living at his craft, founded the international Spoleto Festival and remains an active musical force as he nears his 90th birthday.

He has enjoyed success and failure during his long and distinguished career. His short operas, "The Medium" and "The Telephone," were — astonishingly — Broadway hits in the late 1940s. His 1951 opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," debuted on television with great success and has become a Christmas staple. His full-length operas, "The Consul" (1950) and "The Saint of Bleecker Street" (1954), remain in opera repertoires frequently hostile to American works. But his hugely promoted "Goya," performed here by the Washington Opera in 1986 and composed to showcase Placido Domingo, tanked.

The Washington Opera has had a close relationship with Mr. Menotti, so it is not surprising that opera representatives called him back to direct his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, "The Consul," running at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

A revival of the well-worn Zack Brown production from the 1980s, the sets seem uncannily appropriate to the opera's subject matter — the twin oppressions of totalitarianism and Kafkaesque government bureaucracies. Mr. Brown's sets — a shabby, socialist apartment and a gloomy consular hall whose patched plaster-government-green walls and foreboding concrete beams eerily evoke the pre-restoration grand hall of Ellis Island — convey a sense of grinding hopelessness. Mr. Menotti's direction is conservative in that he does not employ Franco Zeffirelli-like stagecraft to dazzle the audience.

Mr. Menotti's music is modern but tonal, written in a late verismo style that evokes both Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, although its lack of instrumental adornment owes something to the late style of Igor Stravinsky. His music is not daunting, but accessible and thus easily grasped and understood.

Inspired by the suicide on Ellis Island of a Polish national who could not get through immigration authorities, "The Consul's" libretto, written by the composer himself, explores two philosophical tracks. The first is a thinly veiled attack against the totalitarian communist states that dominated Eastern Europe after World War II. The second is a strong condemnation of national and international bureaucracies that, after World War II, created stateless, homeless individuals condemned to wandering Europe in search of new identities.

"The Consul" takes place in a police state somewhere in postwar Eastern Europe. Revolutionary leader John Sorel is wounded while fleeing the secret police and decides to become a fugitive until the heat is off. His wife, Magda; his mother; and his sickly infant are left to cover for him and fend off interrogation by the KGB clones.

Magda, knowing that John will meet a certain death if he returns, determines to get an exit visa from the consulate of a friendly government. But she has not figured on the power of a bureaucracy to prevent anything from happening. The rest of the opera is concerned with the futile attempts of Magda, and many of her fellow citizens, to see the Consul and obtain their exit visas. To do so, they must penetrate mounds of paperwork marshaled by the Consul's implacable Secretary. Like the government vault in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the consulate is a nameless hell from which there is no return.

Most of the roles in the opera are miniatures, with the characters occasionally floating together in ensembles of great beauty and passion. Unlike many modern composers, Mr. Menotti is not afraid to take a chance and go for the big moment. In his ensembles, he achieves some of his most lyrical heights. This is particularly so in the first-act consular scene and in the ghost ballet of the finale, which morphs from reality to another dimension like an early black-and-white "Twilight Zone" episode.

The singing of the crucial supporting roles in the Washington Opera's production is excellent. From the timid immigrant (soprano Randa Rouweyha), to hapless Anna Gomez (soprano Mary Gresock), to the officious Vera Boronel (mezzo Barbara McAlister), to the bizarre magician (tenor Robert Baker), to the stately Mr. Kofner (bass-baritone Herbert Eckhoff), the cast collectively evokes well-limned characters and presents them sympathetically as a chorus of the damned. They are doomed individuals who, by and large, will never see the Consul — who, like Godot in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," never appears.

Among the larger roles, baritone Victor Benedetti is convincing as the desperate, yet honorable revolutionary John Sorel. As the Secret Police Agent, bass-baritone John Marcus Bindel is strong and surly, if a bit over the top, in the thuggishness of his portrayal. Mezzo-soprano Kathleen Segar is sympathetic and supportive as John's mother, singing even the rather silly Act II "baby aria" with dignity and authority.

But this is an opera for a star soprano.

As Magda Sorel, Joanna Porackova gives a heroic performance. Onstage for much of the work, she explodes into an immense aria near the end of the second act that is the emotional high point of the opera. She gave her all with a nearly Wagnerian effort on opening night — an exertion so intense that she seemed a bit hoarse in the final act. Nonetheless, watching caution being thrown to the winds on opening night, a time when singers sometimes are prone to hold back, is a brilliant thing.

The orchestra was not on top of its game. The instrumentalists had a tendency to differ with conductor Joel Revzen, who worked hard at keeping them on track. Perhaps not enough rehearsal time?

Some may complain that it is dated, but "The Consul" is top-notch American opera, accessible to all and enjoyable for most. If the work's anti-totalitarian, anti-bureaucracy message seems a bit musty, one must only look to China, North Korea or one's local college English department to see that Menotti's spin is still most depressingly relevant.

{*}{*}{*}WHAT: The Washington Opera's production of "The Consul"WHERE: Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NWWHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Jan. 17, 19, 22, 24, and 26; 2:30 p.m. tomorrow and Jan. 14TICKETS: $63 to $116PHONE: 202/295-2400

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