Opera Santa Barbara's final production of the season is Gian Carlo Menotti's first full-length opera, The Consul (1950), with musical direction by OSB chorus master Brent Wilson, stage direction by the Ensemble’s Jonathan Fox, sets by David Gordon, costumes by Susan Davis, lighting by François-Pierre Couture and dream choreography by UCSB's Christopher Pilafian.
The production stars soprano Alexandra LoBianco (Magda), mezzo soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen (the Secretary), baritone Joshua Jeremiah (John Sorel), contralto Buffy Baggott (The Mother), bass Kirk Eichelberger (Secret Police Agent), tenor Robert Watson (the Magician) and soprano Julie Adams (Anna Gomez).
The plot of The Consul is a relatively simple affair. In an unnamed European country, the political dissident, John Sorel, is doing his best to elude the secret police. He decides to slip over the border into the next country and to wait there for his wife, child and mother to join him.
Alas, to do so, the trio will need both exit visas and entrance visas, and to obtain them, they will will have to convince the protective rings of bureaucracy surrounding the Consul that they are ... well, it is never made clear just exactly what the two Mrs. Sorels (mother and wife) will need to prove about themselves, or what documentations they will need to provide. They need to see the Consul, but the Consul is a busy man and nobody but his staff ever gets to see him. And so it goes, from bad to worse.
It's a fairly discouraging plot, and people who haven't seen The Consul think it must be depressing. It is not. It is a first-rate melodrama, like Tosca or Costa-Gavra’s Z, and it has a kind of exhilaration to it. How many operas have you seen where you could understand every word of the libretto, even if you knew the language? The Consul is not just easy to follow, in broad terms of plot and action; it can be appreciated, line by line, like a play.
Since he composed his first opera, at age 11, Menotti wrote all of his own libretti, and by the time he wrote The Consul he had achieved a facility for setting words to music for maximum clarity that was the musical equivalent of Bernini's gift for carving marble; in both cases, unmatched before or since.
Opera Santa Barbara clearly suspects that this will be a controversial production. Some of their publicity stresses The Consul's topicality, as if it were somehow an allegory of the Cold War, with direct bearing on today's headlines and lead stories, and that seeing it is some kind of civic duty. Well, it's true that, by 1950, the Cold War was in full swing. Joseph Stalin had three more years to live, and the literally murderous bureaucracy that he created was harvesting victims at a horrendous rate. But a double-dealing — not to say double-talking — officialdom is an old, old story. In 1602, on the stage of the Globe, Hamlet complained about "the Law's delay" and "the insolence of office." Anyway, Menotti's only direct experience of a totalitarian regime was Mussolini's Italy, a kind of opera buffa fascism.
In 1922, when Mussolini seized power, Menotti was 11, and Franz Kafka had two years to live. Kafka was himself a bureaucrat, an agent of an insurance company, and he knew the breed as well as the breed can be known. In his novel The Trial, a priest tells Joseph K. the story of a simple citizen's encounter with bureaucracy, and since it bears on some of the same themes played by Menotti, I append it here. It's long, and there's no need to read it if your eyes are already tired:
"In front of the law there is a doorkeeper. A man from the countryside comes up to the door and asks for entry. But the doorkeeper says he can’t let him in to the law right now. The man thinks about this, and then he asks if he’ll be able to go in later on. ‘That’s possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not now’. The gateway to the law is open as it always is, and the doorkeeper has stepped to one side, so the man bends over to try and see in. When the doorkeeper notices this he laughs and says, ‘If you’re tempted give it a try, try and go in even though I say you can’t. Careful though: I’m powerful. And I’m only the lowliest of all the doormen. But there’s a doorkeeper for each of the rooms and each of them is more powerful than the last. It’s more than I can stand just to look at the third one.’ The man from the country had not expected difficulties like this, the law was supposed to be accessible for anyone at any time, he thinks, but now he looks more closely at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, sees his big hooked nose, his long thin tartar-beard, and he decides it’s better to wait until he has permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down to one side of the gate. He sits there for days and years. He tries to be allowed in time and again and tires the doorkeeper with his requests. The doorkeeper often questions him, asking about where he’s from and many other things, but these are disinterested questions such as great men ask, and he always ends up by telling him he still can’t let him in. The man had come well equipped for his journey, and uses everything, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. He accepts everything, but as he does so he says, ‘I’ll only accept this so that you don’t think there’s anything you’ve failed to do’. Over many years, the man watches the doorkeeper almost without a break. He forgets about the other doormen, and begins to think this one is the only thing stopping him from gaining access to the law. Over the first few years he curses his unhappy condition out loud, but later, as he becomes old, he just grumbles to himself. He becomes senile, and as he has come to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper’s fur collar over the years that he has been studying him he even asks them to help him and change the doorkeeper’s mind. Finally his eyes grow dim, and he no longer knows whether it’s really getting darker or just his eyes that are deceiving him. But he seems now to see an inextinguishable light begin to shine from the darkness behind the door. He doesn’t have long to live now. Just before he dies, he brings together all his experience from all this time into one question which he has still never put to the doorkeeper. He beckons to him, as he’s no longer able to raise his stiff body. The doorkeeper has to bend over deeply as the difference in their sizes has changed very much to the disadvantage of the man. ‘What is it you want to know now?’ asks the doorkeeper, ‘You’re insatiable.’ ‘Everyone wants access to the law,’ says the man, ‘how come, over all these years, no-one but me has asked to be let in?’ The doorkeeper can see the man’s come to his end, his hearing has faded, and so, so that he can be heard, he shouts to him: ‘Nobody else could have got in this way, as this entrance was meant only for you. Now I’ll go and close it’.”
See The Consul for a fresh and exciting theatrical experience, not to learn something new about bureaucrats or tyrants.
Opera Santa Barbara's performances of The Consul will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Granada Theatre, 1214 State St. Tickets range from $28 to $188 and are available at the Granada box office, by phone at 805.899.2222 or online by clicking here.