By Ian Rigg
Chicago Opera Theater’s The Consul couldn’t come at a better time.
The Pulitzer Prize winning opera, written by Gian Carlo Menotti in 1950, tells the deeply human tale of Magda Sorel, a woman struggling to find safe haven for her family as they flee an unnamed government in an unknown time. But in Chicago Opera Theater’s brilliant rendition, the time and place are unimportant. Imagine that the time is now. The place is here. And the lyrics, tellingly, are sung in English.
When Magda’s husband, a rebel against their totalitarian government, escapes across the border to evade the secret police, Mrs. Sorel goes to the consulate seeking political asylum. Denied by the secretary, she returns every day, reliving the same Sisyphean stasis. She and her fellow refugees live their lives in limbo, yearning for freedom, while all the while, the clock keeps ticking.
And yet through the barbed wire, beauty resounds through song.
Director Andreas Mitisek (who also designed the vintage-inspired costumes) has conjured a cutting, chiaroscuro portrait of a fictional past, with its fingers firmly on the pulse of the current political situation. His interpretation of the seminal work is Kafkaesque in the truest sense of the word, in that it transmutes the quotidian into the surreal, in order to illustrate the true terror with which bureaucracy ignores humanity in some semblance of ‘order’.
Mitisek and his creative team seem to channel the askew agitation of German expressionism to bring out the horror of the red tape prison. Alan Muraoka’s brilliant scenic design stretches the stage out into angular shapes, depicting a run-down world off its axis. David Martin Jacques’ lighting design works in perfect harmony to cast exaggerated shadows and illuminate the discord of this dystopia. Whether inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Orson Welles‘ The Trial, the true genius of the production is not in it’s exquisite aesthetic; it is in its stellar performances.
Audrey Babcock, astride a towering desk, spins out fates with a deliciously constructed callousness and piercingly strong voice, through which we may just get a glimpse of humanity to peek through. The show is a treat for bass-baritones: the rich-voiced Justin Ryan and Cedric Berry make for great nemesis as idealistic if bull-headed John Sorel and the smarmy, scheming Secret Police, respectively. As the Mother, Victoria Livengood tears audiences’ hearts out with her sensitive and experienced arias.
And living legend Patricia Racette plays Magda Sorel, the soprano star and beating heart of The Consul. With every breath, she embodies this fraught but defiant and resolute woman. And with each soul-rending, emotive turn, with every agonizingly beautiful tone, she sings for humanity.
“Oh the day will come, I know, when our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains… that day, neither ink nor seal shall cage our souls. That day will come.”
Should we heed Menotti’s message from 60 years ago, should we open our hearts instead of locking our borders, then yes. Yes it will.
Chicago Opera Theatre presents “The Consul” through November 12 at the Studebaker Theater Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.