While I was aware that the 1960 television production of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera The Consul was released on DVD by VAI, I didn’t know until very recently that they also released a 2-CD soundtrack recording of the telecast. A 2-LP original cast album was made by Decca in 1949 and languished in the vaults for many years. The good news, it’s also been made available on CD, in a boxed set including Menotti’s two other operas, The Medium and The Telephone. The bad news – they are not officially remastered by the original recording companies and editorial reviews comment on their lack of good sound quality. (Come on, Decca. Get on the ball!)
As I listened to the stirring, haunting score I read through the brief liner notes and found this recollection of the original show by the star Patricia Neway.
This is what the acclaimed soprano had to say about The Consul:
The experience of preparing and presenting The Consul was unique. The opera was produced on Broadway with the usual schedule of eight performances of a week and was called a musical drama instead of an opera in order not to discourage a broad audience.
After Gian-Carlo chose his singers there were backers’ auditions in which several cast members did scenes without sets or costumes. Guests were invited as prospective backers to the homes of prominent people who hosted the evenings. It was exciting and challenging for all of us. I have one vivid memory – Gian-Carlo handing me a penciled musical manuscript and telling me that I was to sing it at the next backers’ audition two days later. It happened to be at the home of Virgil Thomson, the composer and formidable critic on the Herald Tribune, at his apartment in New York City’s historic Chelsea Hotel. The first line of the manuscript read “To this we’ve come,” Magda’s aria at the end of the second act! I didn’t have time to absorb all that I was dealing with, but when I finished singing it I was trembling from head to toe. It was my first realization of what a powerfully moving role I had been trusted with and what a remarkable work The Consul was.
When we started regular rehearsals with the whole cast, we had the privilege of working with Gian-Carlo as composer and director. It was inspiring to have his genius guiding us. As we got close to opening, my colleagues and I would discuss what we thought was ahead of us. Many thought that we would have an artistic success but only a moderately successful run considering the seriousness of The Consul’s subject matter and its tragic outcome.
On opening night there were no questions anymore. The opera was a phenomenal success – the ovation after Magda’s second act aria seemed to go on forever – the reviews were ecstatic – there were awards and accolades – but most of all there were those people from the audience who came backstage with tear-stained faces to thank me for telling their story. The more we performed The Consul the more I realized it was, above all, a work of enormous compassion and depth.
It is impossible for me to express what a rich experience The Consul has been for me through the years, or to thank Gian-Carlo enough for the privilege of creating his first Magda.
To this day I meet people who saw it and tell me how much The Consul moved them. That generation is passing and I am deeply grateful to VAI for releasing this video so that future generations can experience this enduring work.
Calling all sleuths! We’ve got ourselves a musical theatre mystery here.
I was talking to my friend Chris, who is working at Glimmerglass Opera this summer, about The Consul by Gian-Carlo Menotti (who was born on this day in 1911, I might add). Glimmerglass, located in Cooperstown, NY, is presenting the opera this summer in repertory with more traditional fare such as La Traviata, La Cenerentola and Dido and Aeneas.
The Consul fascinates me because it one of the few operas that was composed specifically for Broadway. The original production opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 15, 1950 running for 269 performances (don’t let the tally fool you, the show was actually a financial success) before it became a staple of opera companies worldwide. The opera showcased young soprano Patricia Neway in the leading role of the oppressed everywoman Magda Sorel and established her as a force to be reckoned with in the opera and theatre world. Neway would also recreate her role in the original London and Paris productions and in a European tour.
Neway was born in Brooklyn, NY on September 20, 1919. She studied voice at the Mannes College of Music (now part of the New School) and with private coaches, making her debut on Broadway in 1942 in the chorus of Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne. Neway’s voice, strong acting ability and striking figure onstage (she stood six feet tall) combined to create a popular presence in the world of opera and musical theatre.
‘The three-act opera follows the tragic story (it’s an opera about the horrors of dictatorship, this cannot possibly end well) of Magda Sorel, a young wife and mother in a deliberately unnamed totalitarian nation whose 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 finds that the bureaucracy at the consulate is unstoppable, leaving herself and many others stranded vis-a-vis the monikers 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 this second show-stopping aria “To This We’ve Come,” a release of a leitmotif heard in the recitative between Magda and her husband early in the first act, with one of the few moments of musical assonance experienced in the score.’
The opera won the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the NY Drama Critics Award as Best Musical. Decca recorded an original cast album of musical highlights that has yet to be released on CD. Menotti and Neway would work again in the short-lived Maria Golovin in 1958 at the Broadway Theatre. The following year, Neway would score great success on Broadway opposite Mary Martin as the original Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, winning the 1960 Tony for Best Featured Actress. (I’ve always been amused that the actress playing Maria was six years older than the actress portraying the Reverend Mother).
That same year, she starred in a revival of The Consul at the City Center. Her performance was taped for an early attempt at pay-per-view television. That taping, considered lost, was discovered in a vault somewhere and released on DVD by VAI and it is an extraordinary document featuring a performance of a lifetime.
The Sound of Music marked Neway’s last appearance on Broadway, but she continued her association with Rodgers and Hammerstein by appearing in the 1964 Lincoln Center revival of The King and I as Lady Thiang as well as a 1966 City Center revival and unrelated 1967 TV production of Carousel as Nettie. Neway sang in numerous productions at the NYCO, including the debut of Six Characters in Search of an Author, sharing the stage with the late, great Beverly Sills.
While talking about the excitement and going on up at Glimmerglass, Chris sent me a youtube link of Patricia’s performance of “To This We’ve Come” this evening. In the title it says “Patricia Neway (aka Frances Breeze) in The Consul.” At first I didn’t know what to make of it, until I decided to google the two names together. What came up in the search was a link to the youtube clip I had just seen as well as one for her Biography page on IMDb. There was this blurb:
“After The Sound of Music, Patricia Neway settled down in Hampton, Virginia and taught voice under her married name “Frances Breeze” until The College of William and Mary recruited her as the head of their singing department. Her last performance was as the mother in Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” in 1974, although she taught voice and directed choir until her death in 2003.”
I’m forced to take this information with some reticence. There is no date of death listed on her IMDb, IBDb or Wikipedia pages. In searching through various databases and periodicals I’ve not been able to locate any sort of obituary for her under either name. I know she was married to opera singer and voice teacher Morris Gesell around the time of The Consul, but the NY Times lists nothing in its archives about her past 1966. If Neway has passed away six years ago, it does seem strange that not one single news source picked up on it.
As for Frances Breeze of William and Mary College, it appears she was a highly respected voice teacher, beloved by her students and dedicated to teaching the art of vocal technique as well as instilling her students confidence and determination. She retired from the school for health reasons in 1983, and moved to St. Croix. Breeze returned to the Virginia peninsula where she died in 2003. In her memory, the Alumni Association established an endowment in her memory providing scholarships to vocal students.
However I have been unable to make a connection between the two names aside from the information I’ve gathered on Youtube and IMDb. Plus, Patricia Neway’s signature is present on the 2009 Broadway Bear of the Mother Abbess (decked out in the striking black and red formal habit Lucinda Ballard designed for the original production). I’m not sure that they would keep a bear for six whole years before they placed it on auction, but I am not familiar with how this branch of BC/EFA functions.
The facts are few and far between and I feel there is more to the story than what I’ve found. I’m going to do further research to find concrete evidence to determine whether or not Frances Breeze and Patricia Neway are one and the same. Unless perhaps any of my regular readers might be able to help?
So until I get to the bottom of this enigma, here is the aforementioned clip of Patricia Neway singing “To This We’ve Come”
Gian-Carlo Menotti’sThe 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 Magdafor 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.