Classical music may seem like a fixed enterprise where nothing changes fast, but it’s as subject to the vagaries of fashion as anything else. Witness Gian Carlo Menotti whose opera, The Consul, has just had a rare, student staging at the Guildhall School of Music.
Back in the 1940s/50s when The Consul was written, Menotti was the toast of New York and among the most celebrated of American-based composers. His children’s fantasy about the three kings on their way to Bethlehem, Amahl and the Night Visitors, played coast to coast every Christmas. His adult operas had enough commercial clout to run not just in opera houses but also on Broadway; and The Consul was an across-the-board success, making serious money as well as winning a Pulitzer Prize.
But then tastes changed. His Puccini-esque melodic gifts and sense of drama were dismissed as creaky, sentimental and old fashioned. And at his death in 2007 – by which time he was living in a stately home in Scotland; strange but true – he was effectively forgotten.
Watching this new staging of The Consul, you could understand why: creaky, sentimental and old-fashioned sums it up. Yet the piece has its strengths. Its Cold War story of a woman trapped by bureaucratic process in an Eastern European police state is part-Kafka, part-Hollywood thriller, and at best a gripping period drama that survives diversions into silliness. The central role of Magda has emotional intensity and one show-stopping aria. And in the right hands, the whole score can be effective.
With slow speeds, an unstable orchestra and some indifferent singing, the Guildhall’s efforts weren’t in that league. But Emily Kyte shone as the consul’s secretary, a feisty prototype for the unhelpful office worker whose computer says no. Michelle Alexander had presence, though too little animation, as Magda. And if the show does nothing but remind people of Menotti’s existence, it will have served a purpose.
Fashion also turned against Handel’s operas, for 200 years in his case. But they’re happily now back in repertoire, established as great works of lyric theatre; and never better staged than in the sharp, intelligent, intensely funny Richard Jones production of Rodelinda just revived by ENO. Jones understands the strange, neurotic comedy that fuels the serious, traumatic drama of Handelian opera, signalling its twists and turns with model clarity. The cast – led by Rebecca Evans in the title role – is uniformly wonderful. And Christian Curnyn turns the ENO ensemble into period-performance experts one and all. A real achievement from a troubled company.
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