Cher Public

Worth the wait

konsulArthaus Musik has released on DVD a superb 1963 “Historical Studio Production” of Der Konsul, a German language filmed version of Menotti’s 1950 opera, The Consul. It is a dark, harrowing vision of Menotti’s “denunciation of all forms of tyranny”, beautifully sung, superbly acted, and directed with an almost film noir/expressionistic style by Rudolph Cartier.

Hearing an opera “somewhere in Europe” in a clearly totalitarian society sung in a European language adds an authenticity to its impact. Menotti’s music beautifully combines a Pucciniesque sweep, the dark undertones of Berg, and orchestral cacophony worthy of Strauss to paint a stark musical vision of freedom fighters dealing with a faceless bureaucracy.

The music is perfectly attuned to the emotional lives of its rich characters, particularly here under the baton of Franz Bauer-Theussl, who brings out every nuance in Menotti’s powerful score. Director Cartier brilliantly uses the rudimentary television techniques of the early 1960s to create a nightmarish world reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Der Konsul takes place in the spare Sorel apartment, where resistance fighter John Sorel lives with his wife Magda, his mother, and his sickly baby. Sorel, hounded by the secret police, is leaving to head to safety in the mountains, leaving his wife Magda to try to get a visa to leave the country. The action moves to the office of Der Konsul, where desperate men and women are forced to fill out endless paperwork with the slim hope of getting a visa. The consul’s Secretary is the utter symbol of mindless bureaucracy, serving Der Konsul, who is never seen or heard behind his closed door.

Director Cartier keeps an almost unbearable tension throughout as the desperate Magda tries to find a way to save her husband. The only misstep (Menotti’s or Cartier’s?) is the Magician scene, where Menotti seems to be trying to lighten the proceedings with a buffo moment when the magician/hypnotist tries to make a case for a visa based on his artistry alone. Befuddling the Secretary with magic tricks, he hypnotizes the entire room, getting all the visa applicants to dance. The whole scene feels like we’ve entered a different opera, and interrupts the dramatic flow.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Melitta Muszely, a singer unknown to me until this performance, is the profound heart and soul of this production. Her soprano soars easily and with tremendous vocal variety through Magda’s increasing terrors. She is a film actress of real finesse, wonderfully expressive even in close-up. She handles the famous aria and scene we know as “To this we’ve come” with power, grace, and smoldering intensity.

She is matched by the young Eberhard Waechter as John, passionate and equally skilled at the cinematic style. Another discovery for me was the German contralto Res Fischer as John’s mother, a deeply felt performance, so expressive of the suffering of the old in a society without peace. Her Act Two lullaby to the Sorel’s dying child, “Bringen werd ich dir Sonn und Mond” was sung with overwhelming love and longing. It is a stunning moment.

American mezzo Gloria Lane is excellent as The Secretary, handing out her endless forms and papers behind sunglasses, that her character can hide her eyes and any emotion she feels from the pitiable applicants. When she finally removes the sunglasses as she closes the office, we are allowed to see her own frustrations in the moving “Oh, diese Gesichter”. Lane’s juicy mezzo and stiff-spined demeanor create just the right bureaucratic emptiness.

In luxury casting, we have Ljuba Welitsch as the Italian Woman, touching in her need to find her dying daughter. Willy Ferenz is appropriately chilling as the Secret Police Agent.

Menotti’s ability to combine the personal with the political in this masterwork is breathtaking. There is an immediacy to the issues and characters in this work, belying the more than half century since its Philadelphia debut in 1950. It is no surprise that The Consul ran for 269 performances on Broadway thereafter. The only surprise is that this opera is not performed more today.

This extraordinary studio performance is one to savor. Also included is a brief interview with Menotti from German television. But watchers will find themselves unable to turn away from the voice of Muszely’s Magda or the layers of thought and emotion in her hypnotic eyes. This opera and this performance are glorious examples of 20th century music drama.

  • Camille

    I’d buy it for that marvelous scene with Ljuba Welitsch, alone. What a great actress!

    Could we have a clip of Miss Muszely’s Magda, to get an idea of her portrayl?

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Melitta Muszely was one of Walter Felsenstein’s favorite singing actresses. For her he tailored his productions of La Traviata, The Cunning Little Vixen, Hoffmanns Erzaehlungen, Ritter Blaubart, and others.

    Here she is as Alice Ford:

    • Camille

      Thank you, QPF, much obliged.

      Almost seems like Nicolai’s Windsor Weibern. Very charming.

  • Batty Masetto

    Menotti may not have been a composer for the ages, but he could sure write effective operatic theater. Here’s a 1960 version. (And we mustn’t forget Farrell’s knockout recording either.)

    • Camille

      I am trying to get the Virginia Zeani version of this same scene to paste, importing from YouTube, but I can’t succeed, after several tries.

      Could someone more savvy than me, do so, as Zeani’s version is really something and I feel it would be nice to remember this beauteous artist today, the day she will be honored at the Giordani Foundation. Thank you fellows.

      • Batty Masetto

        Let’s see if this works, ma chère Camille:

        • Camille

          Mon cher Batty M., once more, my gallant to the rescue!

          I wanted everyone to have a chance to hear her as she is the lady of the moment, tonight, at the Foundation Gala. It is a role I’ve never associated with her and I found it to be rather extraordinary on many levels.

          Merci. Grands bisous!!

          • Batty Masetto

            De rien encore, ma chérie. I only got to see Zeani once, as Manon Lescaut in Rome. She was memorable but the production was very silly -- the end of the second act especially succumbed to that trap of looking like a Marx Bros./Feydeau slamming-door farce. And I had a heck of a time explaining the deserts of Louisiana to my non-operaphile companions.

            Thinking back, after sitting through so many dumb literalist productions like that, it’s no wonder I kind of like regie!

          • Camille

            You know, Batty, I laughed and laughed about that “Louisiana desert” for years and years until I realized one day, avec beaucoup d’oeuf sur mon visage, that they probably just meant “deserted lands” around Louisiana, meaning all those swampy gator-ridden glades and such, where the Tabasco sauce is made, oh no, that’s on Avery Island. Our doyenne could probably authoritatively settle this matter as I know she hails from around them thar’ parts. I haven’t seen the score for a while, but I believe that’s what is meant.

            Know any good Louisiana desserts? Creme bayou a la madeleine?

            I’m happy that you at least got to see Zeani once, and in what was probably an appropriate role.

          • iltenoredigrazia

            Bananas Foster?

          • Batty Masetto

            How can you forget crème brûlée, ma chère Camille?

            Here’s how Abbé Prévost describes the landscape between New Orleans and the nearest settlements (don’t laugh):

            Nous avions à traverser, jusqu’à leurs colonies, de stériles campagnes de plusieurs journées de largeur, et quelques montagnes si hautes et si escarpées que le chemin en paraissait difficile aux hommes les plus grossiers et les plus vigoureux. Je me flattais, néanmoins, que nous pourrions tirer parti de ces deux ressources : des sauvages pour aider à nous conduire, et des Anglais pour nous recevoir dans leurs habitations.

            And here is where poor Manon gives up the ghost:

            Nous nous assîmes au milieu d’une vaste plaine, sans avoir pu trouver un arbre pour nous mettre à couvert.

            Sounds at least like Nebraska …

          • Camille

            O malheur! pas un arbre in sight!
            Well, I really don’t know which state is spoken of now!
            There are plenty of arbres in Louisiana.
            “Steriles campagnes” could certainly be Nebraska, or Oklahoma, or Texas or the Dakotas, too. And what about those “quelques montagnes si hautes et si escarpees” — goodness, they sound like they wound up in Colorado!

            Now I am really confounded.

            I’m gonna have to dredge up that score or a libretto to see what was translated into the Puccini. I remember Des Grieux singing something about non un sorso d’acqua. SO, I guess my pat little theory has been blown to smithereens and it’s back to the drawing board for Camille.

            And I don’t know what Bananas Foster is, either. It sounds very Dairy Queenish or something like Elvis would have at midnight.

          • CruzSF

            I’d thought that “Louisiana” referred to the Louisiana Territory, which did include parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska.

          • Batty Masetto

            Cruz, according to Prévost, Manon pops off “environ deux lieues” from New Orleans. According to Wikipedia the French league varied between about 3.25 and 5 kilometers, so I’m afraid no matter how you measure it, that’s not even going to get you as far as Baton Rouge.

          • The “desert” in Manon Lescaut.

            Doesn’t happen.

            The stage directions in the libretto read:

            Una landa sterminata sui confini del territorio della Nuova Orléans. Terreno brullo ed ondulato; orizzonte vastissimo; cielo annuvolato. -- Cade la sera.

            [A vast plain on the borders of the territory of New Orleans. The ground bare and uneven; vast horizon, the sky overcast. Nightfall.]

            The description in the libretto follows very closely the original “Histoire” of Prevost:

            Nous marchâmes aussi longtemps que le courage de Manon put la soutenir, c’est-à-dire environ deux lieues, car cette amante incomparable refusa constamment de s’arrêter plus tôt. Accablée enfin de lassitude, elle me confessa qu’il lui était impossible d’avancer davantage. Il était déjà nuit. Nous nous assîmes au milieu d’une vaste plaine, sans avoir pu trouver un arbre pour nous mettre à couvert.

            [We journeyed on as long as Manon’s strength would permit, that is to say, about two leagues [i.e., six miles]; for this incomparable creature, with her usual absence of selfishness, refused my repeated entreaties to stop. Overpowered at length by fatigue, she acknowledged the utter impossibility of proceeding farther. It was already night: we sat down in the midst of an extensive plain, where we could not even find a tree to shelter us.]

            To start with, “Territory of New Orleans” is pretty much meaningless in this context. It might mean “an area near New Orleans” (how near?) or else “Territory of Louisiana” (of which New Orleans was the capital in the era of Manon Lescaut). That territory stretched from eastern Texas to western Georgia, so the “borders” might be just about anywhere in the American south.

            The novel, though, makes it clear that the lovers made it just a few miles away (north?) of New Orleans. So Prevost (and Puccini’s gaggle of librettists) have invented a landscape appropriate to the atmosphere of loneliness and despair.

            Nobody says “desert.” Manon does sing “E nel profondo deserto cado,” but a) she’s not in her right mind at the time and b) the text is meant to be poetic, so “wasteland” is as good a translation here as “desert.”

            If you’re looking for bare, uneven ground without many trees, you needn’t look much farther than the floodplains near New Orleans in photographs taken post-Katrina. So, in a pinch, Manon and Des Grieux might have set out across a floodplain during the dry winter season. That would be a pretty horrible place to die.

            (Addendum: checking to see how far “deux lieues” would take you from the old French Quarter, and it gets you about as far as Desire Area, which is very flat and very desolate indeed. In winter there probably wouldn’t be any water handy even that close to the river.)

          • Camille

            BATTY! It’s got to be TEXAS!

            Isn’t that just a banlieue or two from la Nouvelle Orleans?
            But first they must have joined an early Lewis and Clark expedition to go over those montagnes si hautes et si escarpees, and then return back down to the Texas lowlands. On the way, they encountered those “Anglais” amd dread “sauvages”.

            Manon Lescaut (by Puccini)
            ACT IV

            In America
            Una landa sterminata sui confini del territorio della Nuova Orleans. Terreno brullo ed ondulato. Orizzonte vastissimo, cielo annuvolato.

            Since the Puccini libretto is credited to that most creative and famous of all authors, “AUTOR VARI”, somebody in the mix (I think there were like six guys in on this libretto, including Ricordi and Puccini, well, somebody just messed it up. You know about too many cooks spoiling the broth, surely.

            I still don’t what Bananas Foster is.

          • CruzSF

            Ah, well, then: Nessun whisky per nessuno.

          • Camille

            Ciao, Cieca.

            Would you please now explain Bananas Foster?

          • Batty Masetto

            Thanks Cieca, didn’t know there were dry plains in LA.

            Camille, cara, “bananas Foster” is just bananas fried in butter with brown sugar and rum. Plus or minus ice cream or cake.

            You can do worse for a dessert.

          • Camille

            Yes you can. Yesterday I had Tres Leches with Mango and it hung like ten pounds of sugar in the gut.

            Well, I see what Cieca is saying as it is similar to the conclusion I had come to long ago that the deserto is metaphorical, etc,

            However you were quoting from l’Abbe Prevost, which is quite something else, so I am unsettled by all this discussion and will have to go out and have Coconut Flan, which always settles my stomach.

            Bananas Foster sounds like the onset of diabetes to me.
            Now I am sure that it was Elvis’ undoing.

          • Camille

            Cieca,
            in your addendum you say that you would end up in the “Desire Area”…?

            Now, is that not where Blanche DuBois catches her streetcar?
            And if so, had Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux jumped on aboard the Streetcar named Desire, why mercy, they could have made it to Texas after all….or at least to get a drink of acqua.

          • Jay

            Camille, if you can handle pecan pralines, Bananas Foster will slide right down your throat. They grow cane in Louisiana and I reckon they developed a sweet tooth. However, La C is much more knowledgeable about New Orleans delectables.

      • Bluessweet

        Bananas Foster was one of the hit men in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. What a dessert!

  • messa di voce

    “Menotti’s music beautifully combines a Pucciniesque sweep, the dark undertones of Berg, and orchestral cacophony worthy of Strauss”

    Or, one could substitute Elmer Bernstein for Puccini, Franz Waxman for Berg, and Miklos Rosza for Strauss.

  • Will

    Batty Masetto, the Abbé Prévost’s descriptions of Louisiana are on a par with Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s depiction of life in the USA in their various works set in this country long before either one of them had ever set foot here. Kind of in the spirit of those map makers who, when presented with a discovered but never explored land mass, simply wrote “Here be tigers” or some such made up reality. The idea of Manon and des Grieux not being able to find a drop of water in Louisiana is amusing as well!

    • Batty Masetto

      Actually, it charms me, in the same way as the lynch mob in Fanciulla that fiercely sings “doo-dah doo-dah day”! And I do think Brecht & Weill were playing when they decided to add typhoons and whatnot to the picture, don’t you?

  • I read the phrase “German language filmed version of Menotti’s 1950 opera, The Consul” and crossed my fingers, in vain, that next to come were the words Inge Borkh. Her reading of the big aria (the English version, actually) kills me.

    • I love Inge Borkh! I nearly died when I saw excerpts of her Frau in FroSch posted on youtube. Must know if there is a complete video recording.

      • richard

        Alex, DG sold an audio version of that performance for many years, I like, Borkh is senastional as the Dyer’s Wife. MArtha Modl is crazed but very threadbare sounding. I’ve seen assorted clips, it’s very possible it was televised at the time (1963)

        I was a big Borkh fan because of this performance and the Elektra recorded around the same time in performance.

        Love to see complete videos of either. Who knows?

        • Modl is pretty far past it. There’s a better but harder to find version (audio) still with Borkh but Resnik for Modl. And James King in unearthly voice, just ravishing. The weak link here is the Kaiserin who is…uh…Ingrid Bjoner or someone along those lines. I mean she gets through it and is fairly impassioned, but there’s some hard-to-enjoy singing along the way.

          • Is it the BBC broadcast from the ROH with Solti conducting? According to this list (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/cas/staff/lockley/frau/), the Kaiserin would be Hillbrecht, who I’ve not really heard aside from snippets from her assumption of Ariadne on video (which I didn’t really like).

            I found a video clip of Bjoner in the Kaiserin’s big Act 2 outburst.

            C-F: WHO DO I HAVE TO ASSAULT TO GET MY HANDS ON THIS VIDEO?

          • Ugh, btw, the list link I posted seems to have annexed a parenthesis. Delete it from the url for the actual page. Or click this one instead: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/cas/staff/lockley/frau/

        • The FROSCH and Arabella (with Keilberth) were all filmed and audio recorded, as they denoted the re-opening of the Bayerischen Staatsoper.
          Both were issued under DGG and I believe complete videos are available somewhere, in tolerable quality. Meistersinger from the same year was also recorded, although I don’t think they filmed it.

        • AND the complete audio FROSCH was recently reissued under the Brilliant label. Very VERY cheap.

          • MontyNostry

            It must be 30 years since I heard that Keilberth Frosch, but I remember Borkh as compelling — and a more sensual Faerberin than we generally hear. Not sure I fancy Fi-Di intellectualising as big-hearted Barak, though. I don’t like him much as the bearish Mandryka either.

  • Camille

    DESIRE AREA.

    Where desire goes to die, indeed.

    Looks just about right for the Puccini score description, complete with orizzonte vastissimo and cielo annuvolato. Sorry for Manon and for Blanche, too.

  • papopera

    love the lines “des sauvages pour aider à nous conduire……”
    savages to assist in guiding us and englishmen to invite us to their homes….hilarious !

    Problem with Consul is that it was a Broadway opera like a miserable two-bit musical. Wasnt the Met (Edward Johnson?) interested in giving it a real opera première ? I have seen it in a local theatre in 1951 with Patricia Neway hated it and still do.

  • zinka

    I ordered it….knowing that anything La Cieca likes..i will like (well,almost).I assume when I clicked the photo he will get the credit on Amazon….CH

  • VoiceOfReason

    actfive: kudos on a really (really) well-written post.