A motley group sits in a disorderly office, waiting to be seen by someone in authority. They’ve filled out stacks of paperwork—signed their names on multiple dotted lines, submitted passports and photos and health certificates—so they get a new start in another country. But days of waiting turn into months, and it feels like they’ll never get out of this bureaucratic cage.
This could describe the plight of refugees sitting right now on the floors of Chicago Police Department stations. It also describes the characters in “The Consul,” the first full-length opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, performed by the Third Eye Theatre Ensemble at Edge Theater. The opera won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the New York Drama Critic’s Award for best musical, but is rarely performed. Third Eye’s brilliantly sung and emotionally resonant production provides a great showcase for the opera, which has become newly relevant in a world with both a growing refugee problem and a resurgence of fascism. (“The Consul” is directed by Rose Freeman, and conducted by Alexandra Enyart.)
The story captures the misfortunes of a single family in an unknown country. Third Eye double-cast the opera, with different singers playing in alternate performances. John Sorel (played last Sunday by Stephen Hobe) is a freedom fighter being pursued by the secret police. He manages to escape, leaving behind his mother (Jennifer L. Barrett), his wife Magda (Ariel Andrew), and infant son.
Before he leaves, John instructs Magda to seek help from the Consul to get their family to safety. Magda waits day after day for help from someone who is never seen, while her child grows ill and she is emotionally tortured by agents of the Secret Police (Lifan Deng and Keaton Payne).
Both sung and spoken, “The Consul” is not a cheerful story. The only light moments come when one of the applicants, a magician played by Vincent McPherson, tries to convince the Consul’s no-nonsense Secretary (Angela Born) that his art should serve as his documentation. He hypnotizes everyone in the room, and gets them to dance.
Best known for the Christmas opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” Menotti was influenced by Puccini, and his work has a more lyrical quality than other, more atonal mid-twentieth-century composers. Though a lot of the music is filled with discord and tension (beautifully conveyed by pianist and music director Jason Carlson), there are some strikingly lovely pieces, particularly when Barrett sings to her grandson (“I shall find for you shells and stars…”), as well as terrific choral work.
Standouts in the excellent cast include Deng, who played two contrasting characters—a sneering, malevolent policeman and the nebbishy Mr. Kofner, a man perpetually having to correct mistakes in his documents. Barrett is funny and touching as the mother, while Born shines in the pivotal role of the Secretary, who’s more human than she initially seems.
In the lead role of Magda, Andrew displays a warm, rich, powerful voice, capable of great subtlety. She is at her most moving in a showdown with the Secretary, when she reaches the limits of her patience.
The set is simple—the office is transformed to the family home, and back again, by the placement of granny-square afghans. The props are a mix of eras—cell phones and disposable diapers from now, a clacking manual typewriter and red gas can from the past. You can’t tell what year it is, or what country you’re in, and that’s the point. This could be anywhere and any time in the modern era, with people being turned into numbers, their stories into cases.
This is the last production by Third Eye Ensemble, which is disbanding after ten years. “The Consul” offers one more chance to see a Third Eye show—which offers high-level, serious opera in an intimate setting.
“The Consul” from Third Eye Theatre Ensemble at Edge Theater, 5451 North Broadway, through October 8. Tickets available at thirdeyete.org.