Closing out strong is an understatement for this season’s Florida Grand Opera (FGO) finale, The Consul. The season the FGO made the decision to include community-reflective work into their lineup. They also gave the reins to Dr. Julie Maykowski, and her FGO directorial debut was perfect given her knowledge and appreciation of the source material. As such, her choices and instincts paid off, the production respects Gian Carlo Menotti’s libretto and highlights the never-ending circle of stupidity that’s usually associated with government and bureaucracy.
For the uninitiated, The Consul is a tale ambiguously set in the Cold War era concerning the plight of political dissident John Sorel’s wife, Magda, as she struggles to acquire a visa to flee her nation while her home life falls apart. In short, The Consul is a dark, modern opera with a universality that has lost little impact in the half-century since it debuted. That police states have changed so little is telling.
Soprano Kara Shay Thomson (already haven given a spectacular turn in last season’s Tosca) performed a remarkable Magda, carrying the role from frightened and relatively naïve young mother and wife to embittered fighter and defeated victim of the political process. Her evolution as singer and performer in the role did much to highlight the Pulitzer Prize-winning music, expertly conducted by Andrew Bisantz making ample and intelligent usage of his string section.
This work, inspired by real-life events that Menotti read about and with touches of personal interactions from his travels adds veracity and gravitas to the drama. Already open for geographical and dictatorial interpretation, the story adds elements of humanization to the proceedings that highlight the overall meaning of the libretto. Kirsten Scott as Vera Boronel has very little stage time but her character, clearly a member of the aristocracy, has a far easier time at the consulate than Magda.
Others, like Betsy Diaz as The Foreign Woman and Rebecca Henriques as Anna Gomez are people straight from Menotti’s life, and while they were then the human fallout of a post-World War II world, they continue to serve as the faceless, that often fall to the wayside of political struggle and the hardships of the immigrant experience.
Standout performances by Victoria Livengood as the Mother and of local resident Jason Ferrante as Nika Magadoff, The Magician bookend Magda’s plight. The Mother is a stern and nurturing voice of reason, given a treatment by Livengood that belongs as much on stage as an operatic turn as it does under the guise of musical theater – perhaps this might be due to the lyrical and moving tonality of the music that carries the notions of a Golden Age production without the self-importance of an epic.
Ferrante’s Magician, perhaps a strange addition of humor to an otherwise sad tale, is the perfect emphatic point proving the futility of Magda’s exercise. He is repetitive, self-adulating, and obnoxious in a somewhat sadly charismatic way and ultimately a victim of his own cult of personality. He might as well be the unseen consul for he is as much a sham as he is the real thing; he’s the wizard, unmasked with Oz towering around him in the pre-fab drab of Cold War greys. He gives the role a lot of respect and severity and manages to lighten up the mood with a series of magic tricks that are impeccably executed while singing.
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And on that impeccable note, a lot of credit must be given to the FGO’s stage crew and their flawless, scene-to-scene switches within acts that show the astute design of David P. Gordon’s set. Looked at from a standpoint within the story, a world apart from the inefficiency of the Consul’s office.
Maykowski’s instincts as first-time director are spot on. This is a slow opera, maybe even a boring one by certain standards, but that is the point, it is how it jumps from the stage and into the memory banks of anyone who has ever dealt with a paper pusher or stood in a line only to be told to line up in another one; Maykowski drove this one beautifully, breaking and revving when needed.
Sung in English, with minute moments of Italian and sprechgesang/recitative singing, The Consul is a powerful story that moves and pulls at the heart. It is not easy to follow its damned course because by curtains, there is a sizable investment on the audience’s part. On that note, Maykowski, Bisantz, the entire cast and the FGO achieve a monumental triumph. Showcasing a work that this community can relate to on so many political levels doubles that triumph in a splendid manner.
The Consul at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at the Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets cost $21 to $225. Call 305-949-6722 or visit fgo.org.