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A CurtainUp Opera Review
By Elyse Sommer
The Consul's very brief run in the pristine Upper east Side space also comes at a time when the New York theater community has been buzzing with pros and cons about the newly titled, conceived and streamlined version of George and Ira Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess, based on the the novel by Dubose Heyward and the play co-authored by his wife, Dorothy and Ira Gershwin. Though it ran briefly on Broadway and the new opened on Broadway and many of its songs have become a popular part of the American Songbook, its staged versions have been mostly in opera houses. Consequently opera purists have been protective of any tampering in the interest of adapting it to the tastes of musical theater audiences. My own feeling, happily shared by other critics and audiences flocking to The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess at the Richard Rodgers Theatre is that the gorgeously melodic Gershwin score works well as musical theater sung by musical theater rather than opera trained performers.
While Menotti's The Consul has also had a long life in opera houses, it too began life on Broadway. Actually, since Menotti always had his eye on a wide audience, it was originally intended as a screenplay for MGM. It made it's stage debut at the Schubert Theater in Philadelphia on March 1, 1950 and moved to Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater two weeks later. As with the current revival of the "new" Porgy and Bess, The New York Times sent both its theater and classical music critic, Ben Brantley and Anthony Tommasini, Brooks Atkinson and Olin Downs both gave it thumbs up reviews. While no one was quite certain whether to label the piece, opera, musical or music drama, The Consul managed to nab the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the NY Drama Critic's Circle Award for Best Musical of 1950.
The awards and accolades notwithstanding, and its surprising success on Broadway (269 performances) that led to a move to London as well as stages in other countries, The Consul doesn't really lend itself to a Porgy and Bess type modern Broadway musical adaptation. The score, while combining dissonance with melody, doesn't have break-out hit songs like "Summertime" and " Ain't Got Plenty of Nothing." The story certainly has the stuff of high drama, but the rousing arias, duets and ensemble numbers are neither operatic versions of hummable arias shades of Verdi and Puccini, or suitable for musical theater voices. That's why fans of the piece and anyone who's never seen it, should try to catch it at the invaluable Dicapo Opera Theatre where a cast of mostly current and past members of the Dicapo's resident artist program once more bring the tragic story of the young wife of a freedom fighter in a n ameless European police state to vibrant life.
Starring as Magda Sorel, soprano Amanda Winfield displayed considerable dramatic flair as well vocal power, especially with her explosive second act solo, Baritone Chad Armstorn was also in fine voice as her fugitive husband, as was contralto Jane Shaulis as the Mother, whose anguish when she discovers her grandchild's death is especially heart-wrenching. Joseph Baunoch's malevolent Secret Police Agent provided the production with its John Le Carre thriller feel.
The opera's best scenes both musically, dramatically and in terms of impressive stagecraft, take place in the waiting room of the never seen immigration consul's waiting room, which alternate with scenes in the drab Sorel apartment. Michael Schweikardt's consulate waiting room with its towering wall of file cabinets filled with forms without which nothing can be done for anyone makes a potent graphic statement of the hopeless Kafkaesque atmosphere. I couldn't help wishing that Schweikardt had found a way to choreograph the scenery changes a bit more smoothly as was the case for a production mounted by the sadly defunct Berkshire Opera Company more than ten years ago.
If you can't make any of the remaining Dicapo performances, this very limited run, be sure to mark your calendar for their March production of The Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser, best known for Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (currently in revival on Broadway). Unlike Menotti or the Gershwins, Loesser was always a theater man and never intended his May-December romance to be anything but a musical.
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