“The Consul” is probably the most popular opera you’ve never seen unless you’re a very wide-ranging operaphile. The winner of a 1950 Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical, this opera was more popular than “Porgy and Bess” in its day. Then “The Consul” more or less sank from view, despite the fact that its themes of political oppression, soulless bureaucracy, and the quest for freedom are as timely today as at the opera’s premiere.
Seattle Opera has brought back this harrowing three-act show in a gripping production that moves from strength to strength, with solid musical, dramatic, and visual values. Much of the excitement comes from the powerful singing and acting of Marcy Stonikas as the central character, Magda Sorel. She pours that big, resonant voice and a huge wave of emotion into the role; we feel her fear, her fury, and her resignation as she struggles to join her freedom-fighter husband beyond the borders of an unnamed police state. A former Seattle Opera Young Artist, Stonikas has developed a voice that can really thrill; she will be one of the contenders in the company’s International Wagner Competition this summer.
Much of the cast, in fact, consists of former Seattle Opera Young Artists, and it has never been clearer that this program has been a major conduit of developing talent. As Magda’s husband John, company regular Michael Todd Simpson (also a former Young Artist) invests his scenes, including a disturbing dream sequence, with such compelling energy that he’s fully believable as a daring political dissident.
Other former Young Artists appearing in this production include Alex Mansoori, whose brilliant shenanigans as the magician Nika Magadoff provide a welcome counterpoint to the death and sorrow that pervades “The Consul.” (A tip of the pointed hat to the magician consultant, Samuel Shaefer.) Margaret Gawrysiak (as Vera Boronel), Joseph Lattanzi (as Assan), and Deborah Nansteel (as the Foreign Woman) also are Young Artist alums; so are Dana Pundt (as Anna Gomez) and Vira Slywotzky (who sings the role of Magda on Feb. 28). And so is most memorably Sarah Larsen, who just finished a run as the sexy Maddalena in the company’s “Rigoletto,” and has now made a triumphant return as the heartless Secretary who finally develops doubts about the chilling bureaucracy she implements.
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Lucille Beer, heard last summer as Erda in the company’s “Ring,” is wonderful in every respect as the Mother. Steven LaBrie is all insinuating menace as the Secret Police Agent, and Colin Ramsey is a touching, effective Mr. Kofner.
Peter Kazaras’ staging is both vividly realistic and imaginative, especially in dream sequences where he gets even more creative. The nifty revolving set (designed by David Gordon) is ably lit by the resourceful Duane Schuler. And the musical values are solidly underscored by the lyrical conducting of Carlos Montanaro, who knows how to create an edgy energy in the sound, and just when and how to broaden the small orchestra to underscore a dramatic idea. And this is a production with dramatic ideas aplenty — just the right format for polishing up a seldom-heard gem for a new life on the stage again.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.