Gian-Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, one of the rare operas composed specifically for production on Broadway, was a statement by the composer about the state of revolutionary idealists and refugees, mainly those suffering under the dictatorship of Soviet control in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Menotti (with whom, incidentally, I share a birthday) is probably best known for his TV opera Amahl and the Night Visitor, the first opera ever written specifically for television and The Medium.
The Consul, his first attempt at a full opera, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 15, 1950 ran for 269 performances and was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music as well as the New York Drama Critics Award as Best Musical and the long-defunct Tony award for Best Conductor (Lehman Engel). The score contains considerable stretches of recitative rather than aria, with a jauntiness and dissonance that reflects the uneasiness and danger of the political climate of the onstage environment. Soprano Patricia Neway, best known for her Tony-winning turn as the Mother Abbess in the original Broadway cast of The Sound of Music, played the tragic heroine Magda Sorel.
During the run of The Sound of Music, Neway reprised her role of Magda for a paying television audience (in an early unsuccessful attempt at pay-per-view programming in 1960). The television production was discovered and released on DVD a few years ago and provides us with the extraordinary opportunity to see a performer recreating the role of a lifetime. (While we have the DVD and its accompanying soundtrack, the Decca original cast album remains unavailable on CD).
The three-act opera follows the tragic story (it’s an opera about the horrors of dictatorship, this cannot possibly end well) of Magda, a young wife and mother in a deliberately unnamed totalitarian nation. Her husband is a rebel wanted by the secret police. After he is wounded, her husband makes a run to the border to hide while Magda is left to make arrangements to transport the family out of the country safely. Magda’s troubles multiply as her mother-in-law and child become seriously ill and she finds herself constantly followed and interrogated by the secret police. Much to her growing frustration she discovers that the bureaucracy at the consulate is unstoppable, leaving herself and many others stranded vis-a-vis a sea of red tape and paperwork. When her child dies, she makes another imploring visit to the consulate and when rejected once again by the callous secretary, her emotions and anger explode in the show-stopping aria “To This We’ve Come,” which brings the second act – and the opera itself – to a climax with one of the few moments of musical assonance heard in the score.