Culture Project 1: THE CONSUL

The Consul Gertrude Opera Fortyfivedownstairs Until May 23

Anyone who thinks opera is an elitist art form should visit Gertrude Opera’s new production of The Consul by Menotti: the budget was apparently so tight that an oily rag would have been a luxury.

Yet, by dint of fine singing and intelligent direction, the Gertrude Opera – the performing arm of the Melbourne Opera Studio – has pulled together a compelling account, and performed it most ably. I can’t say entertainingly, not for any flaw but because this opera is so unrelievedly grim and tragic. Written in 1950, The Consul is about a callous and indifferent bureaucracy whose refusal to treat like human beings the people desperately seeking visas is pointedly and disturbingly reminiscent of Australia’s refugee policy.

A young mother whose husband is fleeing the secret police needs a visa for the family to leave. Her mother and baby die, her husband is captured and she kills herself. Through it all, the consul’s secretary carries on, indifferent. It is set in a home and a consulate, both employing as props a set of drawers, a bench and a lectern. Behind that, a translucent plastic curtain is useful in many ways.

The ensemble of 11 singers is strong and even, but Linda Thompson as the young mother is outstanding, while Simon Meadows as Mr Kofner is particularly impressive. Kudos also to Eugene Raggio, Kerrie Ann Bolton and Blake Bowden, but special praise for Judith Dodsworth, who sight-read the role of the secretary splendidly while Belinda Prakhoff, unable to sing, acted the part on stage.

Pianist Katherine Day almost persuaded me that an orchestra is optional in this opera, but probably no pianist could manage that.

Gertrude Opera’s website says it wants to “promote empathy and conscience through productions which promote dialogue and awareness of social justice and human rights” – a noble aim, which is here well realised.

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