Musical Notes Graphic

There’s something in the air.

Our local musical organizations are using their performances as vehicles for the expression of a social conscience: the Camerata Singers last week, the Bob Cole Conservatory choirs this Saturday. And over the weekend, Long Beach Opera debuted a new production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “The Consul” at the Centinela Valley Center for the Arts.

You can’t say this work, written in 1950, isn’t timely. Immigrants and refugees, of course, are much in the news these days, but there’s more. Menotti’s libretto is also a searing indictment of a faceless, uncaring bureaucracy, and I think we can all relate to that, too. One would like to think that the human spirit is indomitable, but in opera, as in life, the good guys don’t always win, and the powerful like to retain their power.

The outlook in this opera is pretty bleak, and LBO’s production reflects that. Alan Muraoka’s grim, monolithic set vividly portrays the totalitarian state in which the action takes place, while lending an atmosphere of surreal unreality that is complemented by Andreas Mitisek's stage direction, which shifts between fanciful, sometimes dreamlike movement and harsh reality.

We never get to see the title character — he’s busy. The main character is Magda Sorel, haplessly trying to aid her freedom fighter husband, untangle herself and her family from an impenetrable bureaucratic web, fight off the secret police, and keep her baby alive. She fails at all of them, and there are no happy endings here.

What keeps the evening from being a total downer are the grand sweep of Menotti’s music, the exalted imagery (not always coherent — English was not his first language) of his libretto, and the voices. For this production, Long Beach Opera has assembled a magnificent cast.

As the tortured heroine, international opera star Patricia Racette dominates, acting with supreme conviction, her gleaming soprano powerfully illuminating Menotti’s melodies. Her inspiring, compelling “Papers” aria was the evening’s highlight. Victoria Livengood, hampered by an unfortunate wig, nevertheless gave a powerful, sympathetic and beautifully sung performance as The Mother.

The Consul’s secretary personifies a government that doesn’t know what to do with you if you don’t have the right document. Audrey Babcock's strong singing contrasted with her chilly portrayal; she remained aloof, never made eye contact, and only revealed a spark of humanity toward the end, when it was too little, too late.

Cedric Berry’s sonorous bass-baritone was perfectly suited to the sinister secret police agent, and Justin Ryan’s strong baritone enhanced the character of Magda’s doomed husband. The smaller roles were all effectively cast; standouts included Nathan Granner’s scene-stealing magician and Zeffin Quinn Hollis in dual roles. Krystof Van Grysperre conducted with passion and the requisite feel for the big tune.

There are two more performances, on Oct. 20 and 22. For tickets and information, call 474-7464 or click on www.longbeachopera.org.

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