Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gertrude Opera
Friday 23rd May 2014, Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne

Glaston Toft as the Secret Police Chief
In a downtown Melbourne basement, accessed via three flights of timber stairs, a remarkable little production of Gian Carlo Menotti's, The Consul, blasted the hard, white-washed walls of a theatre space and bar known as Fortyfivedownstairs. Presented by Gertrude Opera including young artists from The Opera Studio Melbourne, the production is bare but their voices are large, their energy is strong and both their individual and collective accomplishments are notable.

A full house of more than 100 enthusiastic patrons attended the last night of four performances. Champers flowed gratis after the performance and innuendo-laced nominations provided additional entertainment as Bill Gillies, Chair of the Board of Management,  presented “alternative Green Room Awards”. Far more serious was the evening’s performance though.                                                            
 Both composer and librettist, Gian Carlo Menotti based the story of The Consul, unusually, on a 1947 newspaper report about the suicide of a Polish emigrant after being refused a visa to the USA. The Consul was Menotti’s first full opera, premiering in 1950 in Philadelphia and going on to achieve enormous international success.

Director, Theresa Borg, drew solid, nuanced performances from the entire cast, making real a world weighing down on their upturned lives. On a low black platform, sparsely furnished with a few rudimentary pieces and a backdrop that resembled an oversized clear shower curtain, Peter Corrigan’s scant set design still did the trick. That said, the platform often creaked its way into the evening’s more subdued moments. Greg Carroll’s crisp lighting design worked well with the curtain to create depth and drama, while costumes, also by Corrigan, adequately evoked hard times.

Linda Thompson as Magda Sorel
But the real praise goes to the cast. Linda Thompson portrayed the desperate and agonized character of Magda Sorel with real immensity and first-rate vocal colour. As John Sorel, Magda’s husband and political revolutionary, young artist, Eugene Raggio, displayed both fear and determination in his struggle for his family’s safety, handsomely voiced though requiring greater fluidity of movement on stage. As John’s mother, Kerrie Ann Bolton exhibited the home-grounding force of love with warmth and tenderness, her calming, beautifully rendered lullabies aptly combatting the tension. With stern officiousness and vocal bite, Belinda Prakhoff’s depiction of the Consulate secretary (both exerting power yet having none) was both demonstrative and entertaining. It will be hard to ever forget the regularity of her typewriting and her indifferent verbalisation of “Next”!

In his operatic debut as the Secret Chief of Police, Glaston Toft boomed with penetrating effect right from the start. Filling out the waiting room of “misfits” at the Consulate, Simon Meadows, as Mr Kofner, dramatised his own helplessness monumentally as he assisted his fellow applicants unselfishly and in fine voice as the magician, Blake Bowden moved with ease and cast his spell magnetically. The performance was rounded out expertly by, Adrian McEniery as Assan together with young artists Rada Tochalna as the foreign woman, Tamzyn Alexander as Vera, Alexandra Lidgerwood, as Anna Gomez and Damien Noyce as the policeman.

Under all this vocal strength, Menotti’s music cushioned the drama admirably under conductor, Rick Prakhoff’s command and Katherine Day’s inexhaustible dexterity on the grand piano, even if at times it faded a little too far into the background. Finally, solid chorus work and clear enunciation assisted the drama, though the recitatives occasionally lacked tightness and consistency.

Simon Meadows, Rada Tochalna and Belinda Prakhoff
With a similar sense of oppression and morbidity persisting in both, I couldn't help but draw a parallel between The Consul and Alban Berg's heavy-handed 1925 psychological drama, Wozzeck. So I found myself mentally building a cast list from the talented team at Gertrude
Opera even before the performance was over, certain they could equally pull off Berg's masterpiece. Perhaps it won’t be long before they do. In the meantime, Gertrude Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is something to look forward to.

Photos courtesy of Gertrude Opera

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