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"The Consul" in San Francisco

Opera Review: "The Consul" by West Bay Opera of San Francisco portrays the bleakness and frustration of life behind the Iron Curtain.

Gian Carlo Menottiıs The Consul is the quintessential cold war opera. Set in an unnamed Eastern European country, it tells the story of a woman whose husband, pursued by the secret police, has had to flee their home, leaving behind not only his wife, but a sickly infant son and his elderly mother. As his wife, Magda tries to obtain papers to leave the country so that she and the family can cross the border and join her husband, the oppressive, insidious world of life behind the Iron Curtain is sketched out--just the way we have come to imagine. Shadowy figures, fearful living, and a system designed to crush hope and humanity are all worked into The Consul.

As part of its commitment to twentieth century opera, West Bay Opera of San Francisco has provided an opportunity to experience this rarely staged work in a production that capitalizes on this unbroken bleak atmosphere. Set designer Jean-Francois Revon and costume designer Richard W. Battle have created a visual world that sternly evokes the harsh world inhabited by the characters. Using muted tones and a limited range of hues, Revonıs set becomes more surreal as the drama intensifies.

For the most part, the sets and costumes work well, though they, like the drama itself, are unrelenting and too unvarying in the atmosphere created. The only major miscalculation is when a series of stern portraits hanging in the consulıs waiting room get the glowing-red-eyes treatment. The effect is bad enough when used initially, but when it returns in the final scene it is downright silly and distracting.

Fortunately, the moment the effect is over, the mood is immediately re-established--thanks to the intensity and focus of Kathryn Hunterıs performance as Magda. Hunter has sufficient control over her large, bright soprano to let it ride without audible stress over the heavy concerted passages and then taper it down to a silvery thread of sound still with ample carrying power. Her portrayal of the wife and mother beset by danger and problems on every side was strongly committed and deeply moving.

As Magda's mother-in-law, simply referred to as the Mother, Michelle Manzell provided a warm, sympathetic presence. Her secure singing and clear enunciation of the text contributed to a performance that offered both strong support and some much needed comic relief in the course of the gloomy story. Manzellıs scene where she tried to cheer up her sickly grandson (and in the process Magda and herself) struck just the right balance of being truly charming and yet deeply moving for the underlying desperation her playfulness tries to mask.

Baritone Martin Philip was the stalwart, stern but loving freedom fighter John Sorel, whose political involvement endangers his family and forces him into hiding. Philip used his lean, strongly projected baritone to convey Sorelıs intensity and determination, softening it somewhat in the more tender moments but always with an edge suggesting his wariness.

In the role of the Secretary, without whose favor nobody sees the Consul, Emily Stern was superb. Her transition from a charming but heartless bureaucrat to a more sensitive, compassionate person made for a fascinating portrayal. Sternıs vocal ease and impeccable diction enabled her to focus on creating this finely detailed performance.

Director Jonathon Field, despite the miscalculations mentioned, did a commendable job of making the drama work. The Consul can become monotonous with it unrelieved oppressive atmosphere of tragedy and sorrow, but Field capably guides his cast into finding the variety within each scene to maintain the dramatic tension and hold the audience interest. Music director Henry Mollicone supported Fieldıs intensely dramatic approach to The Consul, supporting the singers and developing the ensembles with a firm sense of line and shape.

Kelly Snyder is a freelance reviewer of opera and theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also works as the Assistant Manager of Estate Services at Stanford University's Office of Development. Kelly also writes for San Francisco Frontlines, San Jose Living, and Le Concertographe. Occasionally, he performs Gilbert & Sullivan roles with the Lyric Theatre in San Jose. Visit West Bay Opera to learn more about schedules and performances

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