The Consul
by Gian Carlo Menotti, libretto Gian Carlo Menotti.

Dates and Venue November 3, 4, 5 at 7.30 pm & November 6 at 2 pm, Old Auditorium, UBC

Director Nancy Hermiston Conductor Norbert Baxa Set Designer Robert Gardiner Lighting Designer Jeremy Baxter Costume Coordinator Parvin Mirhady

UBC Opera Ensemble with members of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra

Sung in English with English surtitles

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

Spiky music and a morally indignant text fast-forward the 1949 opera The Consul straight into the contemporary moment.  UBC Opera is presenting the Gian Carlo Menotti’s post-World War II work in conjunction with the University’s symposium Breaking the Cycle: Canada’s Refugee Record on the World Stage, and the choice of opera couldn’t be more apt.

Set in an unnamed totalitarian country, partly in the Consulate of a kinder, gentler nation and partly in the home of freedom-fighter John Sorel (Hyun Seung Son), it tells the tale of Sorel’s family from the time he leaves to take refuge in the mountains near the border.  Like others, they endure poverty and hardship and constant harassment from the secret police.  Magda (Gwendolyn Yearwood) goes every day to the Consulate trying to obtain the necessary papers so the family can leave, but the process is a bureaucratic nightmare.  While they wait, both the baby and John’s Mother (Yeeun Lee) die.

At the Consulate, Magda is only one of several characters enmeshed in the capricious demand for documents and data. A foreign woman (Marie Civitarese) needs to leave the country to help her daughter who is having a baby. Time is of the essence but she will have a 3-month wait. Mr. Kofner (Matthew McLellan) tries to interpret for her. He is kind and competent but her desperation is lost in translation. Kofner himself fares no better, articulate, professional and patient though he is. Ana Gomez (Melodie Corbett) is a concentration-camp survivor who must leave the country when her permit expires. The Secretary (Leila Kirves) at first tells her to go back home and only grudgingly gives her application forms. We never learn why Vera Boronel (Jody Lear) needs to leave, but she is the only one who receives her exit papers.

Enlivening the grimness is Nika Magadoff, the spirited Ian McCloy. Magadoff is famous, he assert: a magician, he has entertained the rich and famous. Perhaps art needs no passport, or perhaps fame is sufficient in his mind as he has no documents at all. He performs magic tricks for the Secretary, even hypnotising the other applicants and enchanting the audience, but he can’t conjure anything from the Secretary except her monotonous statements,”Your name is a number, your story a case, your need is a request, your hopes will be filed."

With precisely rhythmic singing, Leila Kirves inhabited the role of the cold, indifferent Secretary beautifully, firmly subduing the moments when humanity begins to creep in, chatting on the phone for instance, or accepting the magician’s flowers. In contrast, as Mother, Yeeun Lee is gifted by Menotti with the most lyrical arias of the opera to which she brought a range of emotion, warmth, tenderness, and grief.

Hyun Seung Son’s John Sorel was energetic and firmly sung, Luka Kawabata was sufficiently threatening as the Secret Police Agent and Brandon Shapiro was Assan, Sorel’s trusted comrade.

In an impressive performance Gwendolyn Yearwood traced Magda’s journey from misery to desperate strength. Magda’s powerful aria,’ To this we’ve come’ soars with flowing melody to crashing chords and sinks to softest monotone. Yearwood’s flexible soprano ran the gamut of emotion with a masterful intensity.

Menotti strengthens the hallucinatory quality of his Kafkaesque world by contrasting his superbly naturalistic setting of speech and commonplace locations with phantasmagorical scenes of fantasy and nightmare. Nancy Hermiston’s excellent stage direction and pacing combined with the Norbert Baxa’s attentive conducting wound The Consul’s ever-increasing tension to a very high pitch. Robert Gardiner’s rotating platforms, drab tenement and bleak office in partnership with Jeremy Baxter’s unobtrusive lighting complemented a very fine production.

A different cast will perform in alternating performances.

© 2016 Elizabeth Paterson