Thursday, July 12, 2018

Your Name Is a Number

OPERA SARATOGA ISN’T AFRAID of making statements. In 2015, Jeremy Howard Beck’s “The Long Walk” told the true story of Iraq veteran Brian Castner’s battle with PTSD; last season’s “The Cradle Will Rock” presented Marc Blitzstein’s socially conscious opera in its fully orchestrated glory, giving us a piece that the U.S. government shut down just before its 1937 premiere as a gesture of political censorship. (That production was recorded, and the CD set is now available.)

Jennifer Panara and Meghan Kasanders
Photo by Gary David Gold
This year’s message opera is bleaker still, and all the more glorious for it. Gian Carlo Menotti wrote music and libretto for “The Consul,” which premiered in 1950 and enjoyed a long run on Broadway – back in the day before jukebox musicals and tripe like “The Lion King” took over the street. Back in the day before the audience had been TV-conditioned to avoid entertainment that’s too emotionally challenging.

Menotti wrote the piece in response to the plight of a Polish woman who tried to emigrate to the U.S. and was so frustrated while detained at Ellis Island that she hanged herself. Not that there was any lack of other political indignities to inspire him: late-40s America was blacklisting artists with a glee unmatched until very recent times. What made the opera timely back then was its portrait of a bureaucracy indifferent to suffering. Even as that endures as apposite, what now makes the opera all too up-to-date is its treatment of immigration. If you don’t shiver with horror at the treatment endured by Magda Sorel and her fellow consulate victims, you’re probably qualified to work for the White House.

“You’ll come back and want to seal me in your arms,” sings a French chanteuse as the piece opens, a record heard through the window as a wounded John Sorel staggers into his flat. We’re in an unnamed European country; the police are after Sorel and the others who attended a revolutionary meeting that night. Thus, it’s Robert Wesley Mason as John who kicks the piece off at a breathless pace, and his infrequent subsequent appearances amp up the energy of those scenes.

But it’s Meghan Kasanders as Magda, his wife, who fully inhabits the piece, whether she’s tending to her husband or resisting the angry questioning of a Secret Police Agent (sung by a menacing Nate Mattingly) – or sitting in silent submission in the consulate waiting room. Kasanders uses her gorgeous voice to sing of hope and frustration, letting us also feel how much she’s holding in reserve (in character) in order to satisfy those who might help her.

Also outstanding is Deborah Nansteel as John’s Mother, who sings the gorgeous lullaby “I shall find for you shells and stars” in Act Two, trying to pretend that her son’s sickly infant won’t succumb.

In a brilliant piece of set design (credit to Cameron Anderson), the Consul’s secretary sits high up at a desk to which a long staircase reaches only partway. A long fluorescent bulb runs horizontally across the front of this office; it’s split perpendicularly by the endless roll of paper issuing from the secretary’s manual typewriter, its key-clatter and bell a reminder (to us oldsters at least) of the percussive sounds that once characterized such offices.

And poised behind that typewriter, the unnamed Secretary decides the fates of those who wait below. The high arches of Jennifer Panara’s eyebrows fiercen her look of indifference; she peers over spectacles that glitter like ice. “No one is allowed to speak to the Consul,” she insists, adding, robotically, “Your name is a number. Your story’s a case. Your need a request. Your hopes will be filed. Come back next week.”

It’s a well-measured performance, one that strikes the right contrast with the unraveling we see from Kasanders. The two are locked in a fatal dance. The Secretary has a brief, unexpected moment of self-awareness in Act Three as she’s closing the office for the day. “All those faces!” she exclaims. “They hang from the ceiling and the walls. They wait for me all day long. They still will be here in the morning, boneless, pale in the dusty sun.” Menotti’s music allows this woman’s guard to slip, and Panara expertly humanizes her in that moment.

Tyler Nelson and cast members
Photo by Gary David Gold
But the waiting and frustration suffered in that office is also stunningly realized by a group we get to know too well. There’s Mr. Kofner (Garret Obrycki), who has been there “yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before and every day for oh, so long,” and who seems to have collected all the necessary papers at last – but his photos are the wrong size, and this paper needs to be notarized. He attempts a good deed in translating the request of the Foreign Woman (Kelly Glyptis), but it comes to naught.

Amidst the group on the bench is a man in a glittering performer’s costume. He’s a Magician, and Tyler Nelson plays him with no end of charm – and, soon enough, with excellent prestidigitational skill when he attempts to charm the Secretary with an array of tricks. Hypnosis, too, soon persuading the others to waltz, transforming the bleak waiting area into a ballroom. Almost all of the stage space is covered with papers, and these take on a special glow for the dancing.

It’s an important foreshadowing moment, too: at the end, when Magda’s hopelessness sends her into a tailspin of self-destruction, the Magician figures enticingly into her nightmare. Costume designer Glenn Avery Breed dresses the cast in drab when needed, but deftly shows difference in social status. And the use of overcoats is brilliant, as a sequence in the waiting room melds into a more tragic use of them in Magda’s flat. Opera Saratoga Artistic Director Lawrence Edelson directed the production with a sure touch and a brilliant use of space, and Andrew Bisantz conducted the virtuoso orchestra through this difficult piece with remarkable ease.

Opera Saratoga’s commitment to the social causes “The Consul” illustrates carried through two earlier events: a symposium and a concert, both titled Refugee Voices. The symposium took place in early July and brought together a number of area immigrants; the June concert featured works by composers forced to flee their native lands. These are points of awareness that desperately need to continue.

The final performances of “The Consul” takes place at 2 PM Sunday, July 15, 2018. Information is here.

The Consul
Music and Libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti
Conducted by Andrew Bisantz
Directed by Lawrence Edelson
Opera Saratoga
Spa Little Theatre, Saratoga Springs, NY, July 9

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