The first performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul was in March, 1950; in April, 2023 its core sentiments are still horrifyingly relevant. Consistently innovative and presenting thought-provoking operatic material at a high standard, Australian Contemporary Opera Co. (ACOCo) has selected 20 minutes of Menotti’s opera to challenge audiences in a visceral way with ENDURE.
There was not a great deal of “waiting, waiting” for the audience, just some lining up in an unexpected corridor that had been created as part of the 1990s development of the magnificent space of 333 Collins St. Numbers were issued – mine was an alarming ED583410367 with the words “YOUR NAME IS A NUMBER” and “YOUR STORY’S A CASE” – while signs on the wall cautioned us against being rude to the staff. We were to be polite and patient as we waited to enter what was a quite large, modern and sometimes overly resonant space. Walls were covered in posters – part of the Conversations From Calais project that “aims to re-humanise those affected by the refugee crisis by using public space to share conversations volunteers have had with migrants met in Calais. It is a way of bearing witness for the thousands of displaced people stuck in Calais and trying to reach the UK”. In the ten-minute intervals we had the opportunity to read about what so many people are still enduring.
As each 20-minute performance ended some audience members left, some stayed and new members joined those who wanted to see how performances evolved. Although I was unable to join them until 5.30, one woman had become so involved that she managed all 12 – from 3pm until 9pm. A feat of endurance? Not really. At seven performances, I was more in awe of Phillipa Safey, who directed from the electronic keyboard. The other three musicians: Stuart Byrne (clarinet and saxophone), Stephen Robinson (oboe) and Theodore Pike (keyboard and percussion), were also highly accomplished and somehow transformed a full orchestral score into a satisfyingly coherent musical experience. In fact, this stripping back to essentials was very much in keeping with the whole production.
Those who stayed for multiple performances had the benefit of hearing different singers in some of the central roles as well as seeing certain changes in the ways those roles were performed by the same singers. This concept also gave the singers freedom to explore different aspects of their roles. A couple of changes of costume and props also presented different perspectives. The shift between typewriter/computer, and black telephone/smartphone further accentuated the longevity and relevance of this situation – endurance of a different kind.
The selected scenes focused on those in the consul’s office. As the secretary of the consulate, Heather Fletcher alternated her jacket along with her attitude to the line of people seeking help. Dark russet came with a stern, implacable attitude, whereas light pink came with a more sensitive, concerned demeanour. At one stage, I thought that if the secretary had always been so upset when dealing those in need she would have had a nervous breakdown. Always a strong, reliable singer and convincing actress, Fletcher was consistently impressive in all manifestations. Alexandra Amerides, a very different, more modern and trendy secretary, also gave a persuasive, well-delineated performance.
The line of suppliants began with Assam, sung commendably by Christopher Hillier and Daniel Felton. Hillier in particular gave the role tremendous impact, his well-projected baritone voice providing a sturdy underpinning for the chorus segments as well as giving the opening scene a powerful edge.
ACOCo appears to have an abundance of fine female voices. Breanna Stuart was the only soprano to sing the role of the (Italian – like Menotti himself) Foreign Woman, but her affecting singing was as fresh and lovely on the final performance as it had been much earlier. Elizabeth Green and Una Dobia shared the role of Anna Gomez, both singing with conviction. Elizabeth Green was outstanding in the ensembles too, her voice rich and secure – somebody to watch out for. Caitlin Rowe was another valuable member of the ensemble.
In the central role of Magda Sorel, desperate wife of a political dissident, Emily Burke and Caitlin Toohey both gave impassioned performances – different but equally moving. Burke had the lioness’s share of the workload but was emotionally and vocally giving it her all right to the final performance. The decision to end each 20 minutes with Magda’s Act 2 aria, “To this we’ve come” meant that the audience leaves on an optimistic note rather than the gas oven suicide that ends the opera. The aria is a favourite for singing competitions because of its soaring melody and dramatic range, and calls for enthusiastic applause as the soprano defies the soul-destroying machinery of bureaucracy on a note of affirmation with “the day will come, I know”. And both singers were applauded enthusiastically. It is debatable whether some of the physical expressions of frustration were too exaggerated – no treating the staff with respect there – but the result was unequivocally moving. Although Toohey’s performance was slightly more physically restrained, I became tearful each time, wondering what it was exactly about her performance that struck me as especially poignant.
Seated alongside various members of the cast, we became immersed in the plight of those waiting for a visa, often surrounded by their voices. Although the singers and instrumentalists might be relieved that ENDURE was confined to only one day, it is to be hoped that ACOCo will find a way of bringing this vivid combination of opera and art installation to further audiences.
Heather Leviston reviewed ENDURE, presented by Australian Contemporary Opera Co. at 333 Collins Street on April 29, 2023.