It's almost inconceivable that any new opera today could enjoy the combination of critical and popular success that greeted Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Consul" at its premiere in 1950.
Opening in a Broadway theater, rather than an opera house, it ran for an astonishing 269 performances. Menotti, who wrote both the score and the English-language libretto, won the Pulitzer Prize for music and the New York Drama Critic's Circle Award for best musical.
But Menotti's works have long since fallen out of fashion. So an admirable production of "The Consul" by Opera New Jersey at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton — marking the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth — provided a rare chance to hear his first full-length opera.
The second and final performance of the run on Sunday afternoon featured a standout performance by soprano Lina Tetriani as the doomed heroine, Magda Sorel, and strong work by a large supporting cast that included veteran mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle as The Mother.
Menotti chose a subject that resonated strongly with audiences in the early Cold War years: A political dissident flees a repressive European police state, while his wife makes frantic attempts to obtain a visa from a "friendly" consulate so she can join him in exile.
The brutal tactics of the secret police are graphically portrayed, but Menotti saves his greatest scorn for the bureaucratic machinations of the consulate, where paperwork exists to deny help to those in need rather than grant it. Significantly, the title character himself never appears. Instead, his Secretary guards the desk by his door and fends off supplicants with an endless series of forms.
Far from being outdated, the story is distressingly timely 60 years later, when political prisoners, refugees and immigration problems are the stuff of daily headlines.
But the libretto suffers from a heavy-handed treatment of its subject matter that creates an atmosphere of unrelieved, and somewhat one-dimensional, gloom. Magda endures blow after blow with no respite: the loss of her husband, harassment by the secret police, and the death of her baby and mother-in-law. Even her suicide turns out to be a futile act of self-sacrifice.
Tetriani, a diminutive woman with a sizable voice, enacted Magda's ordeal with grim determination and deservedly won a huge ovation for her big aria, "To this we've come," a heartfelt cry against inhumanity.
Castle brought warmth and a still-potent voice to her role, especially in the tender Lullaby aria sung to Magda's dying baby. Also worthy of note were baritone Nicholas Pallesen as a passionate Sorel; mezzo Audrey Babcock as the icily efficient Secretary (who turns out not to be quite as unfeeling as she seems); and tenor Jason Ferrante as the exuberant but creepy Magician.
Director Michael Unger kept the action moving smoothly between the Sorels' apartment and the consulate. The stage design by Michael Schweikardt included a rear wall depicting dozens of file cabinets — to hold all that paperwork — that descended to cover the kitchen when the scene shifted.
The New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Joel Revzen, gave a vivid account of the score, which though often derivative in its echoes of Puccini, is the work of a master technician and has moments of genuine inspiration. Besides the arias for Magda and The Mother, there's a striking trio for them and Sorel to end the opening scene, and a powerful ensemble at the conclusion of Act 1 for the visa-seekers who fill the consulate waiting room.