BY BRONWEN WHYATT
The Consul by Gian Carlo Menotti
130 Dryburgh St, North Melbourne, 30 May
“Your name is a number, your story’s a case, your need a request, your hopes will be filed, come back next week.” Sounds more like an interaction with Centrelink than the words of an opera written nearly 70 years ago.
Last week I saw Menotti’s The Consul, a plea to humanity that arose out of the plight of post-war European refugees. I found myself in a cement-floored foyer, at the venue for Gertrude Opera’s 2015 production, occupied only by a wine table, a table acting as a box office, and a display from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. The ASRC display was a stark reminder that not much has changed, and some may argue our lack of humanity has become even more severe.
Making my way upstairs into the performance space, the sparseness and intimacy of the setting was confronting. This opera, directed by Greg Carroll, was a skilful portrayal of bureaucratic indifference to people fleeing violence and persecution under repressive regimes. John Sorel (Eugene Raggio), a freedom fighter and family man, is being pursued by the secret police and goes into hiding. His wife, Magda (Linda Thompson) mother, (Karen van Spall), and child are left behind to seek asylum for the family at a nameless consulate. Along with several other applicants, Madga pleads with the secretary (Rose Nolan) on many occasions to consider her situation.
The musical language is complex, the harmony often dissonant and, in combination with the physical setting, all performers were exposed. Eugene’s spirited voice captured the earnest John Sorel. Rose Nolan, representing bureaucracy’s contempt for the experience of the individual, expertly portrayed the character of the secretary. Karen Van Spall delivered the heart-wrenching lullaby John’s mother sings to her dead grandchild, and the duet between the secretary and Brigette De Poi’s Vera Boronel, ‘One must have one’s papers’, was precisely whispered. Linda’s despairing ‘To this we’ve come’ was a fitting summary of the weighty and hopeless situation refugees find themselves in.
Many Brechtian techniques were used to good effect. The partially opaque back curtain, behind which the off-stage performers sat; the minimal and exchangeable props; and the singer’s make-up painted a consistent image. This setting, designed by the late Peter Corrigan, spoke of the feelings of vulnerability and lack of privacy experienced by asylum seekers baring witness to the ugly nature of systems from which they are fleeing, and bravely giving voice to their hopes in the face of stony silence.
Pianist Peter Baker rates a special mention for his interpretation of the relentless and complex score (there was no interval), as does conductor Rick Prakhoff for connecting singers and piano. With the audience sitting close to the performance, the space was unforgiving of minor balance issues, and singers seeking sight lines to the conductor were sometimes too obvious. However, the performance was solid and successful.
Image courtesy Gertrude Opera. Pictured: Joshua Erdelyi-Gotz as Assan, Rose Nolan as Secretary, Juliet Dufour as Anna Gomez, and Brigette De Poi as Vera Boronel.