THE CONSUL theatre review

The University of North Florida Opera Ensemble and Orchestra presented Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul for five performances from April 1-4 in the Lazzara Performance Hall on the UNF campus.
This is an after-the-fact review, but we were so impressed with the production, we wanted to let theatre and opera lovers know what to expect when attending a UNF event, and encourage them to see future productions, especially those given by the music department.
The reason we were interested in seeing The Consul was due to the casting of Jacob Rothman in the role of John Sorel. We have followed his career since he was a student at Bartram High School, where he starred in a number of musicals. And we have seen him perform at the Alhambra in “Cinderella,” with FSCJ in Beauty and the Beast and with the Jacksonville Symphony in Pirates of Penzance. His performance as a revolutionary wanted by the secret police was assured and skilled.
We were impressed with The Consul in all aspects of the production, including sets, lighting, costumes, orchestration, direction, acting and fine voices.
The Consul was an interesting operatic choice. Menotti had a big success with his opera The Old Maid and the Thief and was asked to do write a script for a movie based on the true story of an Austrian family who fled to Hungary in WWII. After the war, they wanted to return to Austria but were denied entry. When they tried to return to Hungary, they were likewise denied; a plight shared by many displaced persons searching for a country in the post-war era. The movie producers felt the script was too depressing, so the resourceful Menotti turned his story into an opera. The Consul debuted in 1950 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, ran for 269 performances, and won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The opera is a period piece but remains relevant, with bureaucracy and red tape as prevalent as ever, although the technology has changed from typewriters and filing cabinets to computers. We will skip a plot summary, saying only that we found it more interesting than many operas we have seen. If you like Cold War spy movies, you would like this opera, but you need to be prepared for a conclusion filled with riveting death scenes rather than a happy ending.
Dr. Krzysztof Briernacki, opera ensemble director and stage director, assembled outstanding voices in every role and the ensemble work was especially well done. When we saw the program and noted thirty members were in the orchestra (tucked away in an orchestra pit under the stage), we feared so many instruments would overpower the singers. Not so, Conductor Dr. Simon Shiao’s inspired orchestra played to perfection, and we could hear the contributions of both the musicians and the cast clearly.
The set and lighting by Johnny Pettygrew was excellent. The stage at the Lazzara is so large it was like having two complete sets side by side. The Sorel apartment had gray walls, and simple wooden furniture, with a curtained doorway. The consul’s office, with blue walls and uncomfortable wooden chairs could have been anywhere; we’ve all spent time in similar inhospitable settings.
The Costume Crew’s attire for this production captured that of Eastern European city dwellers in the 50’s. They used clothes in simple shapes and drab colors of rust, grey, brown and black for many of the characters.
While all the characters were interesting, one that stood out as unusual was Nika Madgadoff, a magician. Yes, a magician who is seeking a visa comes to the Consul’s office. He performs some sleight of hand and other magic tricks to impress the office secretary. This role was triple cast, with Bryan Hayes performing the night we saw it, and Shaun Adams and Mario Almonte at other performances. Mark O’Brien, noted magic consultant and instructor, taught the actors the tricks of the trade.
The cast included Jacob Rothman as John Sorel, Ashley Kemker as the mother, Brandon Thornhill as Mr. Kofner, Claire LeGrand as the consul’s secretary, and Jessica Menke playing Anna Gomez who was also looking for a visa. Hannah Meloy and Meghan Mizell alternated the role of a Foreign Woman, another supplicant. Jordan Rutter was Assan, the glass cutter.
The menacing secret police were played by Josh Johnson, Emorja Roberson, Shaun Adams, and Bryan Hayes. Brittany DiStefano and Kassy Eugene alternated the role of Vera Boronel.
The leading female role, Magda Sorel, was shared by Elyse Matthews and Brittany Fouche, with Ms. Fouche performing this very demanding role when we were there.
The UNF campus was as lively as we have ever seen at any university. While The Consul was being performed, Shakespeare’s The Tempest played to a full house of folding chairs on the lawn, and folk singer Janis Ian entertained in the Andrew Robinson theater right around the corner.
Thanks for an interesting and entertaining evening of opera; we will be back for future productions.