Time has not been an ally to Gian-Carlo Menotti’s 1950 Cold War-inspired opera “The Consul.” This may have been considered provocative and daring in its time, but this 1960 television production (originally created made for something called “Telemeter Theater on the Air”) poorly preserved the work. Viewed today, it looks pretty silly.
“The Consul” takes place in an unnamed Eastern European country. A political dissident (Chester Ludgin) is on the lam from the secret police. His wife Magda (Patricia Neway) repeatedly visits the consulate of an unnamed Western democracy to acquire the documents needed for emigration. Yet the consulate staff seems to consist of a single obnoxious secretary who is none too interested in helping anyone emigrate. The consulate is packed day after day with a motley mix of poor souls, including a “foreign woman” with a distinct Italian accent (how she wound up there is not clear) and a hammy magician who annoys everyone with his crummy tricks. As time drags on, Magda realizes that she and her husband will never be able to leave and that they are doomed to die behind the Iron Curtain.
The two men credited as co-directors made no attempt to adapt the stage presentation for the distinct technical requirements of television. Instead, they kept the excessively theatrical acting and make-up of the operatic medium but shot the whole thing in close-ups and tight medium shots. The result is borderline ridiculous, especially when Evelyn Sachs’ is on screen. She is supposed to be an elderly mother, but her patently phony wig and greasepaint make-up fail to conceal the fact she is not an old woman.
Ludgin and Neway are equally ill-served here. Their singing is more than fine, but the tightness of the camerawork cruelly accentuates their stagy acting (with a strong emphasis on popped eyes and gaping jaws which look pretty funny even when the situation is supposedly grave).
Truth be told, “The Consul” is not one of Menotti’s better operas. The work is very rarely revived today, and it is not just because the Cold War is history. The music and lyrics lacks depth and drama, and the notion of secret police agents musically interrogating witnesses generates unexpected giggles. The Soviet domination of Europe was literally nothing to sing about, and even a great artist like Menotti could not make this tragic period resonate musically.
Opera fanatics may find curio value in “The Consul.” But for everyone else, this DVD release is not worth the bother.