Gian Carlo MENOTTI (1911 – 2007)
The Consul (1950) [92.17] (1)
Amelia al Ballo (1936) [52.02] (2)
Magda Sorel – Patricia Neway (soprano) (1)
The Mother – Marie Powers (contralto) (1)
The Secretary – Gloria Lane (mezzo) (1)
John Sorel – Cornell MacNeill (baritone) (1)
The Secret Police Agent – Leon Lishner (bass) (1)
Nika Magadoff – Andrew McKinley (tenor) (1)
Mr. Kofner – George Jongyans (bass-baritone) (1)
The Foreign Woman – Maria Marlo (soprano) (1)
Vera Boronel – Lydia Summers (contralto) (1)
Anna Gomez – Maria Andreassi (soprano) (1)
Assan – Francis Monachino (baritone) (1)
The Voice on the Record – Mabel Mercer (soprano) (1)
Amelia – Margherita Carosio (soprano) (2)
The Husband – Rolando Panerai (baritone) (2)
The Lover – Giacinto Prandelli (tenor) (2)
The Friend – Maria Amadini (contralto) (2)
The Chief of Police – Enrico Campi (bass) (2)
First Chambermaid – Silvana Zanolli (mezzo) (2)
Second Chambermaid – Elena Mazzoni (mezzo) (2)
Orchestra/Leon Engel (1)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Nino Sanzogno (2)
rec. New York City, April 1950 (1); Teatro Alla Scala, Milan, March 1954 (2). ADD
NAXOS 8.112023-24 [69.01 + 75.18]

The nearest antecedent to Menotti’s opera The Consul is Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. Both are through-composed operatic works and both have strong influences from American popular music. Weill wrote Street Scene for Broadway and wholeheartedly embraced both popular music and the vulgarity of Broadway. Menotti didn’t and in later life seems to have been not a little embarrassed by his highly coloured opera. Where Weill channels the music of Broadway shows, Menotti channels the sound-tracks of Hollywood films. The sheer melodic fecundity, highly-coloured realism and a confident reliance on operatic ensembles mark the opera out from many operatic works from the 1950s.

The Consul is American Film Noir come to musical life; you could imagine the work as a 1940s Hollywood film. In fact, Menotti’s skills as a dramatist led to a contract with MGM to produce screenplays; none was in fact filmed but one became The Consul. What makes it work is that it is a rattlingly good tale, well told. The work was written in the 1940s and was Menotti’s first full-length opera. He wrote his own libretto and the piece is full of the overtones of McCarthy era America and the Iron Curtain. Interestingly, Menotti wanted Maria Callas in the role of Magda Sorel, which would have been fascinating to say the least.

The work has not been extensively recorded on disc. There is a highly regarded Chandos set (CHAN 9706(2)), conducted by Richard Hickox and with Susan Bullock as Magda. Anyone interested in the work will need to buy the Chandos.

On the set under review Naxos have usefully re-issued the opera’s first recording, from 1950, in fact made just a month after work’s pre-Broadway tryout in Philadelphia. The work was recorded with extremely close miking and the result is very dry and has a profoundly period feel. In fact it feels like a radio play, albeit one that is sung. The singers’ diction is admirable though, like their English counterparts of the period, they sound rather too polite. Unfortunately at climaxes, particularly in the ensembles, the recording becomes a little overloaded.

But what we gain is dramatic immediacy in a performance which is vividly unselfconscious, with all the singers providing a vital response to the words. Patricia Neway (Magda) sang the role at the Philadelphia tryouts and on Broadway. A number of other members of the cast were also present at these early run-throughs and at the premiere. This involvement shows in their interaction and strong ensemble.

Patricia Neway’s Magda does sound a little under-powered in her big Act 2 aria; at least she doesn’t really ride the orchestra the way Susan Bullock and Christine Brewer are able to - Brewer recorded the aria for Chandos’s Opera in English recital series. This might be a fault of the balance of the recording. Still Neway is an involving and poignant Magda, giving us an emotional climax at the end of Act 2 and tugging the heart-strings in Act 3 when she commits suicide.

Marie Powers provides able support as the Mother, with her own telling moment as she sings a lullaby to the dying baby. And Gloria Lane is impressive as the Secretary. The remaining cast are equally strong.

The opera is slightly cut; Menotti was evidently concerned to preserve the dramatic impetus on the radio and elided some of the purely orchestral passages. Naxos provides a detailed scenario but no libretto. The singers’ diction is such that no libretto is required - you can simply put the CD on and enjoy the experience direct.

The companion work is the 1954 recording of Menotti’s first opera, Amelia al Ballo. This is a charming piece of fluff which rather reminded me of some of Wolf-Ferrari’s comedies and is an entirely enchanting filler.

The original recording of The Consul is a vividly dramatic and highly atmospheric piece of work, which manages to transcend the limitations of the recording. Whilst most people will want modern sound, I would recommend investigating this historic recording as well.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Göran Forsling

The original recording of The Consul is a vividly dramatic and highly atmospheric.