Searing journey through state-sponsored hell

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “The Consul”
Where: The Studebaker Theater
When: Through Nov. 12
Tickets: 312-704-8414

It’s hard to believe that “The Consul,” an opera with music and libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, is over 60 years old. It seems fresh and contemporary, and in the new staging at Chicago Opera Theater, entirely compelling.

The story centers on Magda and her family who live in an unnamed totalitarian country. Her husband John is a freedom fighter on the run from the police. John flees to the border and instructs Magda to get a visa for herself, their child, and his mother so they can join him across the border.

Magda visits the consulate where the consul never appears and where people wait endlessly hoping for a visa. A secretary rejects nearly every application and piles on additional paperwork and requirements. This path to freedom is as capricious and heartless as the totalitarian regime itself.

Patricia Racette offers a searing performance as Magda. Frustration gives way to fear, later to anguish and ultimately to abject desperation. She does all she can to put on a brave face even when harassed by the secret police or given more bureaucratic mumbo jumbo at the consulate. Racette offers nuanced colors for all of this, drawing you into her world of misery. She knows when to make her pleas sweet and when to add a hard edge to her despair. Her singing is gripping throughout and she alone is worth the price of admission.

Racette is supported on all sides by fine singers. Mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood puts forth a weird and unforgettable portrayal of Mother. Livengood, who sang under Menotti’s baton several times during his lifetime, offers a magnificent account of the lullaby for the doomed baby. Her lowest notes are dark and satisfyingly rich, and her attention to text is superb. Her disturbing approach to Mother emphasizes the effects of a lifetime living under totalitarianism.

Mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock does fine work as the Secretary, the gatekeeper to the title character. In this world of bureaucracy gone amok, one element of Menotti’s genius is to name the opera after a character who never appears, but who means so much to every other character. The visuals in this opera are generally good, but scenic designer Alan Muraoka’s creation of a topsy-turvy desk, built three times higher than an ordinary desk and askew in a Dr. Seuss sort of way, is utterly fantastic. It informs you immediately that this is no ordinary office and that no ordinary procedures will be in place. And if you are to get anything from this secretary, you can’t even approach her in the ordinary way, but must climb the desk with the care and accuracy of a mountain goat.

Babcock sits astride this desk with prim efficiency and never betrays the absurdity of it all. Her singing conveys the regimentation of the machine of which she is but a cog and Babcock knows just when to introduce a touch of imperiousness. Her singing is apt throughout and always convincing.

Every one of the smaller roles is also well cast. Baritone Justin Ryan is a virile John, the husband of Magda, and appears both haunting and hunted. Soprano Kimberly E. Jones grabs your heart as the Foreign Woman, who only wants a visa in order to be at the bedside of her dying daughter. As Mr. Kofner, bass-baritone Vince Wallace powerfully introduces the idea of the consulate being a house of frustration, and his nuanced approach adds patience to his character’s disgruntlement. Bass-baritone Cedric Berry is marvelously creepy as the member of the secret police smarming his way into Magda’s home in his trench coat, always with a menacing cigarette.

Kristof van Grysperre conducts the orchestra with flair, drawing out Menotti’s colorful music. Andreas Mitisek is the stage director, and this outing is a fine farewell for the man who served as general director of the company from 2012 until earlier this year. Too bad there were so many empty seats in the house.